Synopses & Reviews
National best seller and Today show Book Club selection, Broken for You is the story of two women in self-imposed exile whose lives are transformed when their paths intersect. Stephanie Kallos's debut novel is a work of infinite charm, wit and heart. It is also a glorious homage to the beauty of broken things. When we meet septuagenarian Margaret Hughes, she is living alone in a mansion in Seattle with only a massive collection of valuable antiques for company. Enter Wanda Schultz, a young woman with a broken heart who has come west to search for her wayward boyfriend. Both women are guarding dark secrets and have spent many years building up protective armor against the outside world. As their tentative friendship evolves, the armor begins to fall away and Margaret opens her house to the younger woman. This launches a series of unanticipated events, leading Margaret to discover a way to redeem her cursed past, and Wanda to learn the true purpose of her cross-country journey. Both funny and heartbreaking, Broken for You is a testament to the saving graces of surrogate families and shows how far the tiniest repair jobs can go in righting the world's wrongs.
"'The dead, Margaret thought. They can be so loud.' So muses the protagonist of this dreamy, powerful tale of familial warring, secrets and redemption. When elderly Margaret Hughes discovers that she has a malignant brain tumor, she refuses treatment and decides to take a nice young tenant into her huge, lonely Seattle mansion for company. What she gets is Wanda Schultz, a tough-as-nails stage manager who is secretly seeking the man who left her and prone to inexplicable weeping breakdowns. Wanda, ignorant of Margaret's illness, is intrigued by the museum-like house and its eccentric owner so when Margaret unexpectedly invites her to a drink-champagne-and-break-the-priceless-antique-china party for two, she's delighted. But a dark history lurks; the houseful of gorgeous antique porcelain comes from Margaret's father's WWII pilfering of European Jewish homes. Meanwhile, Wanda's father, who deserted her years ago, is on the road trying to heal, and Margaret's mother's ghost is haunting the Seattle mansion, lounging about in expensive peignoirs and criticizing her only daughter. Wrestling to keep the dead and the ghosts of their pasts at bay, the two women slowly build an extraordinary friendship, and when Wanda discovers a talent for mosaics, the past begins to quiet. Though it takes a while to get started, this haunting and memorable debut is reminiscent of early Atwood, peopled by lovably imperfect and eccentric characters. Agent, Simon Lipskar at Writer's House. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Stephanie Kallos's lovely and heartfelt first novel is a gift. A story of broken hearts and broken promises, it is also the story of the ways we put things back together messily, beautifully, and ultimately triumphantly. Kallos is a writer to watch, and one who, mercifully, still believes in happy endings." Sheri Holman, author of The Dress Lodger and The Mammoth Cheese
"Let the angels in! With this story of transformative friendships, Stephanie Kallos calls us to leave the dreary wisdom of our lives and seek the company of souls adrift. Good things come in pieces." Nancy Rawles, author of Crawfish Dreams
"In this sparkling debut novel, Stephanie Kallos has created an extraordinary testament to the power of love and forgiveness. Broken For You is a big-hearted book that pulses with life." Tova Mirvis, author of The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary
"A seventy-six-year-old woman who's just learned that she has a brain tumor takes in a thirty-four-year-old woman who's just been dumped by her boyfriend. Can this be funny? Yes. Painfully funny, beautifully written, and completely original. I love this novel." Lolly Winston, author of Good Grief
"Theater veteran Kallos debuts with a dazzling mosaic of intersecting lives and fates....Kallos has a rare, deft way with whimsy, dream sequences and hallucinations. Comparisons to John Irving and Tennessee Williams would not be amiss in this show-stopping debut." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"Tikkun olam is a Hebrew phrase that means 'repair the world,' and this imperative serves as the narrative catalyst of Broken for You....This is a novel of redemption." Susan Coll, Washington Post
"Broken for You is moving and endearing, painful and satisfying, put together in just the right shape." Detroit Free Press
Funny, heartbreaking and alive with a potpourri of eccentric and irresistible characters, this fresh debut novel is about two women in self-imposed exile whose lives intersect, transforming both their worlds.
A fresh and compulsively readable debut novel about two women in self-imposed exile whose lives intersect, transforming both their worlds. Septuagenarian Margaret Hughes has spent most of her adult life alone in a mansion filled with antique porcelain whose dark origins hold a mysterious force over her. When she learns she is dying, she opens her home to a succession of oddball boarders, which is how she meets Wanda, a broken-hearted woman chasing the man who deserted her. As these two broken souls come together to form an unusual improvised family, past wrongs, both personal and historical, are repaired. Broken for You is funny, heartbreaking and alive with a potpourri of eccentric and irresistible characters, and will appeal to fans of Anne Tyler or John Irving.
About the Author
Stephanie Kallos spent twenty years in the theater as an actress and teacher, and her short fiction has been nominated for both a Raymond Carver Award and a Pushcart Prize. Broken for You is her first novel.
Reading Group Guide
1. How is Margaret portrayed in the beginning? Who is this woman who is entombed in a vast, carefully dusted house with her fathers collection? An unlikely heroine, she is an old, peculiar recluse. How is her diagnosis an inciting force for change? Talk about her growing appreciation of the uncommonness of common things.
2. In the clamor of the first armload of plate crashing, Wanda suddenly knew that she had found a home with someone who was as deeply aggrieved and crazy as she was. It was tremendously comforting (p. 133). How does the Hughes house, truly a sanatorium, provide a haven and structure for these women to pass through madness to sanity? Can you think of other books or plays that explore the same theme?
3. When Wanda reflects on her life in the theater, she says, Youre part of this intense family for a while, and then everyone moves on (p. 165). How does Troy shift the rules? What is different about the steady accretion of people at the Hughes house?
4. How much is it possible to know another person? What are the limitations imposed on characters in Broken for You, both by accidents of history and by their own actions? Even with breakthroughs of knowledge and trust, do any characters keep a part that is private? Which ones? Margaret and Wanda, for instance, as close as they are, each retain core secrets until almost the end. Why? And what are the secrets? Why does M. J. Striker withhold his own secret and recognition so long?
5. What do we learn about Margarets mother? How does she function in the book? Were you reminded of Noël Cowards Blithe Spirit? In her visitations, what is her value to Margaret? There is high comedy in her shenanigans. Oh, Margaret really! You must enjoy this hoopla while you can. Believe me when I tell you its no fun being part of a scandal after youre dead (p. 289). Is Margaret working something else out in these spectral appearances? (The visits of Daniel are fewer and very different. How?)
6. Did you find conflicts between traditional values and newer ones? Where? Which characters grow larger or more sympathetic from being challenged by younger people? Does the converse hold?
7. How is the theme of the quest important in the book? Which characters commit themselves to seeking someone lost? What are the results? Who abandons the quest and why? Are there surprising rewards?
8. Parenting is explored in various characters stories. Discuss Oscar, Margaret, and Michael as parents. Others? How is the idea of surrogate parenting developed? How successful is it?
9. Once the door is open . . . you cant shut it again, impose limits, set degrees of openness . . . (p. 126). In what ways do Margaret and Wanda, and later Gus and M.J., irrevocably make themselves available and vulnerable to life?
10. What does it mean to bear witness in this book? Margaret had been given the privilege of bearing witness to Wandas life (p. 126). What other characters participate in this act? What are the larger ramifications of bearing witness, and why does it matter? For instance, why does it matter to honor the dead and find out their stories and try to fulfill their wishes?
11. Talk about the title. To how many characters and things and ways of life does it pertain? What is meant by a dissolution of borders on page 269?
12. How is the star motif expanded in the book? Think about the star imagery from Margaret to l942 school children in Europe. (See page 282 for some of Margarets own thoughts on the subject. And see page 290 for a further amplification of the symbol.)
13. The Hughes Collection Scandal: Desecration or Deification? (p. 278). What do you think about the central occupation in the book? Art? Or half-crazed mayhem? What do Wandas pieces say about her as an artist? What does the media criticism of her work say about the art? Consider the artists point of view (p. 293). Do you accept the premise that salvation or restitution may come through destruction and lossand moving on? Which characters find their own salvation through building up others?
14. How does the Crazy Plate Academy serve as a culmination of the process that has gone on through the book? Sorting was like beachcombing on a shore where every pebble is precious and time is boundless. And the familiar way everyone chattedso many hands in constant, purposeful, attentive motiongave Margaret the feeling of being at a quilting bee, a barn raising, or a wake (pp. 327328). What do these activities, certainly disparate, have in common?
15. How does the fact that neither Margaret nor Wanda is Jewish affect their joint efforts vis-à-vis the Holocaust victims and memories? When does expiation for her Nazi-sympathizer father become important for Margaret? Do you agree that at the center of this controversy is the concept of worth: what we as humans valueand why (p. 280)? When Margaret is researching Irmas past in Paris, she realizes, Bodies had been shattered and things had not (p. 313). How directly does her involvement in the making of tesserae correct this imbalance? Does the appearance of the Jewish patron Babs Cohen add credibility to the undertaking? Discuss other times Judaism appears in the novel. Think about, for instance, Sam Kosminsky singing in Hebrew at dinner, the background imagery of Kristallnacht (p. 227), the museum in Paris, and Bruce singing the blessing.
16. Irma Kosminsky is the most vocal proponent for doing mitzvahs. What are some of them? How do you explain her life-affirming resilience and sense of humor? How does she explain it? In a conversation with M.J. we hear Why bother, Mrs. K? . . . We both know youre going to win (p. 274). Apart from Scrabble, how else does Irma win in the book?
17. Discuss Stephanie Kalloss definition of a relationship: a marvel of construction, built up over time and out of fragments of shared experience . . . Maybe we feel such a strong kinship with pique assiette because it is the visual metaphor that best describes us; after all, we spend much of our lives hurling bits of the figurative and literal past into the worlds landfilland then regret it. We build our identities from that detritus of regret. Every relationship worth keeping sustains, at the very least, splintered glazes, hairline fractures, cracks. And arent these flaws the prerequisites of intimacy? (p. 295). Do you find this an alarming view of human behavior? Or do you find it oddly comforting?
18. What is the significance of the Sevre chocolate service? How is the mystery resolved? What is the story of the single teacup? It was like that all through the war, things like that, little things that people did (p. 321). What ultimately is the fate of the tête-à-tête?
19. How is the poetry of Yeats interwoven in the book? Why in particular should it be Yeats who recurs?
20. What were the funniest parts of the book for you? Think of Irma, with her dry survivor wit as well as her bolder humor. Recall Maurice, whose clumsiness is a boon in the Hughes house. And Margarets outrageous mother. Talk about other moments of high or low comedy.
21. How are love and sex recurring symbols of healing and joy? Think about specific relationships, those that survive and those that dont. Describe M.J.s loves, both as Striker and as OCasey. How do you compare young love to that of older people? Why does Wanda wait so long to accept Troy as her lover? What does the parenthood of Susan and Bruce say about love, sex, and family?
22. The china, both whole and in pieces, generates stories, such as the ice-fishing ninety-two-year-old Alta Fogle. Maybe this is true. Maybe not. You can never be sure: all objects in the Hughes house have to have meaning, and if their past is not known, stories are invented (p. 337). In chapter thirty-two, the narrator addresses the reader directly, as if one were M. J. Striker approaching the Hughes house. Pay attention. Let your mind embrace metaphors. Its your first clue about what goes on here (p. 337). How do these quotations help us understand multiple levels of the story? Is the making of mosaic art also a metaphor for writing stories, the novel, for instance?
23. Did you find the dream sequences effective in conjuring up the memories and surreal perceptions of the injured Wanda and the dying Margaret? As a reader was it hard for you to suspend disbelief in a kind of free fall? Have you encountered magic realism in other books? In the third dream sequence, Margaret approaches Wanda. Be happy. . . . Were worth more broken (p. 348). How is the last line of Margarets dream, The balloon arcs up forever, into the night sky, past millions of glittering stars (p. 350), magically apt?