Synopses & Reviews
For ten summers, the Seton family all three generations met at their country home in New England to spend a week together playing tennis, badminton, and golf, and savoring gin and tonics on the wraparound porch to celebrate the end of the season. In the eleventh summer, everything changed. A hunting rifle with a single cartridge left in the chamber wound up in exactly the wrong hands at exactly the wrong time, and led to a nightmarish accident that put to the test the values that unite the family and the convictions that just may pull it apart.
Before You Know Kindness is a family saga that is timely in its examination of some of the most important issues of our era, and timeless in its exploration of the strange and unexpected places where we find love.
As he did with his earlier masterpiece, Midwives, Chris Bohjalian has written a novel that is rich with unforgettable characters and absolutely riveting in its page-turning intensity.
"Bohjalian's new novel begins with a literal bang: a bullet from a hunting rifle accidentally strikes Spencer McCullough, an extreme advocate for animal rights, leaving him seriously wounded. The weapon owned by his brother-in-law, John, and shot by his 12-year-old daughter, Charlotte becomes the center of a lawsuit and media circus led by Spencer's employer, FERAL (Federation for Animal Liberation), a dead ringer for PETA. The many-faceted satire Bohjalian (Midwives, etc.) crafts out of these events revolves around Spencer and Jon's families, but also involves a host of secondary figures. Bohjalian excels at getting inside each character's head with shifts of diction and perspective, though he makes it difficult for readers to connect with any one in particular. This is in part because his portraits are often unsympathetic; the characters are allowed to hoist themselves on their own petards. While some are credibly flawed Spencer is both a loving father and an obnoxious activist others are cartoonishly mocked with their own thoughts, like high-powered attorney Paige, who mourns the loss of her leather chairs and briefcases, hidden away for as long as FERAL is a lucrative client. If there is a grounded center to this work, it is 10-year-old Willow, Spencer's niece, who distinguishes herself from this baggy ensemble by always trying to do the right thing. She alone is spared the narrator's irony, and it is Willow, years after the accident, who has the last word. Bohjalian's skewering of the animal rights movement gets the better of his domestic drama, but his skillful storytelling will engage readers. Agent, Yellow Barn Books. (Oct.) " Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Bohjalian's elegant, refined writing makes even the most ordinary details of family life fascinating, and his characters leap off the pages as very real, flawed, but completely sympathetic human beings....A triumph." Booklist (Starred Review)
"The finely drawn scenes and characters here will suck in all but the hardest-hearted. Pretty much irresistible." Kirkus Reviews
"Chris Bohjalian's many fans will be glad to know he's back on the high wire, expertly balancing topical issues with the more timeless concerns of the human heart. His well-drawn, sympathetic characters deepen and intensify the novel's gripping plot rather than simply serving it. Before You Know Kindness is smart, first-rate storytelling." Richard Russo, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls
"Once again, Chris Bohjalian dares to tackle the complexities and complacencies of modern society at its most vulnerable spot, where the personal clashes with the political, where the private is forced to go public. And once again, he forges a drama that will keep his readers on the edge of their seats...perhaps their conscience as well." Julia Glass, winner of the National Book Award for Three Junes
"Chris Bohjalian's magnificent new novel, Before You Know Kindness, is the best work of fiction I've read about an American family since Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. It is one of the funniest, best-written, most compassionate, most engaging, and flat-out most enjoyable novels I've ever read." Howard Frank Mosher, winner of the New England Book Award for A Stranger in the Kingdom
"Bohjalian has had much success in the past, including a selection as an Oprah Book Club author. Before You Know Kindness is better than anything he's written before." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Bohjalian elegantly guides readers through a labyrinth of opposing viewpoints in a purposeful narrative that seamlessly blends the personal and the political." San Francisco Chronicle
"[A]bsorbing....Bohjalian effectively draws the reader into the inner lives of every family member, each of whom is dealing with the tragic event in his or her own unique way." BookPage
"Before You Know Kindness may very well be his best....Masterly...timely [and] well-wrought." The Boston Globe
"An irresistible read. Moving from quiet domestic drama to legal thriller." The Washington Post
"A dark psychological dance of family estrangements, lies and self-righteousness...plenty of finely wrought characters and thought-provoking personal and political drama." The Seattle Times
Chris Bohjalian, bestselling author of Midwives
, presents his most ambitious and multi-layered novel to date examining wildly divisive issues in today's America with his trademark emotional heft and spellbinding storytelling skill.
On a balmy July night in New Hampshire a shot rings out in a garden, and a man falls to the ground, terribly wounded. The wounded man is Spencer McCullough, the shot that hit him was firedaccidentally? by his adolescent daughter Charlotte. With this shattering moment of violence, Chris Bohjalian launches the best kind of literate page-turner: suspenseful, wryly funny, and humane.
About the Author
Chris Bohjalian is the bestselling author of nine novels, including Midwives (a Publishers Weekly Best Book and an Oprah's Book Club selection), The Buffalo Soldier, and Trans-Sister Radio, as well as Idyll Banter, a collection of his magazine essays and newspaper columns. His work has been translated into seventeen languages and published in twenty countries. He lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter.
Reading Group Guide
1. Before You Know Kindness
opens with a blunt, clinical description of Spencers injuries. Is the preface a purely objective report or does it begin to develop some of the general themes of the novel? What does it convey about the Setons and their way of life?
2. Spencers speech pp. 16-19 and Nans descriptions of his behavior pp. 27-29 offer varying insights into his personality. Does the tone of the writing influence your impressions of him? What specific details bring out the differences between Spencers self-perceptions and the way others might view him?
3. How does Bohjalian portray FERAL and the people who work there? Do you think this is an accurate portrait of the animal-rights movement? What reasons might Bohjalian have for distorting their attitudes and activities?
4. Sara thinks, “The problem with Nan-and with John and Catherine, and yes, Spencer when they were all together-was that they could never just . . . be.” [p. 38] In what ways is this attributable to Nan and Richard Setons marriage and the atmosphere in which John and Catherine grew up? Why does Spencer, whose background is so different, demonstrate the same quality?
5. How persuasive are Johns explanations of why he took up hunting? What does the argument that hunting “is the most merciful way humans had to manage the herd” [p. 73] imply about the relationship between humans and the natural world? Does Johns anguish after the accident alter his view of hunting in general? Do you think that it should?
6. In talking to Willow about Catherine and Spencer, Charlotte says, “Sometimes I get pissed at both of them. I dont think Mom would be the way she is if Dad wasnt this public wacko.” [p. 117] Are Charlottes complaints typical of a teen-ager or does Spencers profession put an unusual burden on her? Is her criticism of her mothers flirting well-founded?
7. Bohjalian suggests several times that Charlotte may have subconsciously wanted to injure her father. She herself says, “There were lots of reasons for pointing Uncle Johns weapon at what was moving at the edge of the garden. . . . ” [p. 133] and acknowledges that others might think, “She was just doing it to get your attention. . . . ”[p. 135] Is this speculation supported by the way Bohjalian describes the accident? By Charlottes subsequent behavior and her conversations with Willow?
8. The accident and Spencers permanent disability provide FERAL with an irresistible opportunity to make their case against hunting. Is their decision to bring a lawsuit totally reprehensible? Do the depictions of Dominique, Paige, and Keenan undermine the validity of their case?
9. Self-interest plays a part not only in FERALs reaction to the tragedy. Are you sympathetic to Johns concerns that the lawsuit will effect his professional reputation, as well as his fear that “for as long as he lived he would be an imbecile in the eyes of his daughter” [p. 142]? How did you feel as Catherine vacillates in the second half of the novel between wanting to help her husband and wanting to leave him?
10. “Nan was a particular mystery to [Sara]. Exactly what was it that she didnt want to think about?”[p. 176] Were you puzzled by Nan as well? By the end of the novel, did you feel you had a better understanding of her?
11. What would have happened if Charlotte and Willow had not confessed to drinking and smoking pot on the night of the shooting? Were you relieved that Spencer decided not to pursue the lawsuit?
12. Although the plot revolves around Spencer, at various point in the novel each character moves to center stage to comment on the events and their repercussions. Which members of the family most appealed to you and why? How successful is Bohjalian at capturing their individual points of view and personalities? Did your opinions of them change as the novel progressed?
13. Does Bohjalian present both sides of the controversy in an evenhanded way? Which characters appear to embody his own point of view? What is the ultimate message of Before You Know Kindness?
14. Do you think that the issues Bohjalian examines in Before You Know Kindness are more important (or more relevant) than the topics he explored in (for example) Midwives or The Law of Similars or Trans-Sister Radio?
15. Why did Bohjalian use a passage from The Secret Garden as one of the epigraphs? In what ways is the childrens classic relevant to Before You Know Kindness?
16. Why did Bohjalian take his title from the poem, "Kindness," by Naomi Shihab Nye, a portion of which serves as the other epigraph?
From the Hardcover edition.
Every summer the extended Setons family gathers at the family homestead in New Hampshire, where Nan Seton, age seventy, presides over what her children and grandchildren jokingly call “The Seton New England Boot Camp.” The hectic schedule of golf and tennis and swimming at the club, nature hikes before dinner, and badminton on the lawn in the waning hours of daylight is disrupted one Memorial Day weekend when Nans son-in-law, Spencer, corrals the family into planting a garden. An avid animal-rights activist, Spencer envisions tables laden with fresh fruits and vegetables and a new appreciation on the part of his skeptical extended family of the virtues of vegetarianism. But a horrible accident in the garden exposes deeper divides within the family and forces them all to reexamine their loyalties to one another.
Chris Bohjalian, the author of Midwives, The Law of Similars, and Trans-Sister Radio, possesses a remarkable ability to create moving human dramas that simultaneously illuminate the complicated reality behind contemporary controversies. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “[Bohjalians] hallmark: Ordinary people in heartbreaking circumstances behaving with grace and dignity.” The Setons are just such a family and as Before You Know Kindness unfolds, Bohjalian once again gives us a novel that engages both our hearts and our minds.
(Reading Group Guide courtesy of Shaye Areheart Books.)