Synopses & Reviews
From Jane Hamilton, author of the beloved New York Times
bestsellers A Map of the World
and The Book of Ruth
, comes a warmly humorous, poignant novel about a young man, his mother's e-mail, and the often surprising path of infidelity.
Henry Shaw, a high school senior, is about as comfortable with his family as any seventeen-year-old can be. His father, Kevin, teaches history with a decidedly socialist tinge at the Chicago private school Henry and his sister attend. His mother, Beth, who plays the piano in a group specializing in antique music, is a loving, attentive wife and parent. Henry even accepts the offbeat behavior of his thirteen-year-old sister, Elvira, who is obsessed with Civil War
reenactments and insists on dressing in handmade Union uniforms at inopportune times.
When he stumbles on his mother's e-mail account, however, Henry realizes that all is not as it seems. There, under the name Liza38, a name that Henry innocently established for her, is undeniable evidence that his mother is having an affair with one Richard Polloco, a violin maker and unlikely paramour who nonetheless has a very appealing way with words and a romantic spirit that, in Henry's estimation, his own father woefully lacks.
Against his better judgment, Henry charts the progress of his mother's infatuation, her feelings of euphoria, of guilt, and of profound, touching confusion. His knowledge of Beth's secret life colors his own tentative explorations of love and sex with the ephemeral Lily, and casts a new light on the arguments-usually focused on Elvira-in which his parents regularly indulge. Over the course of his final year of high school, Henry observes each member of the family, trying to anticipate when they will find out about the infidelity and what the knowledge will mean to each of them.
Henry's observations, set down ten years after that fateful year, are much more than the "old story" of adultery his mother deemed her affair to be. With her inimitable grace and compassion, Jane Hamilton has created a novel full of gentle humor and rich insights into the nature of love and the deep, mysterious bonds that hold families together.
Disobedience takes forms great and small in Hamilton's new family drama. The Shaws have just left Vermont for Chicago. Kevin is an affable and optimistic high-school teacher. Beth is an accomplished pianist. Henry, Hamilton's complicated narrator, is a mild-mannered and lonely high school senior. And Elvira, his tomboy little sister (and the novel's most charismatic character), is a hard-core Civil War reenactor who disguises herself as a boy while on the field and wishes she was one. Henry has inadvertently opened his mother's e-mail and discovered that she's having an affair with a violin player who lives in a log cabin just over the Wisconsin border. This knowledge frightens, angers, and intrigues him since he is in the throes of his first passionate relationship. As Henry ponders the mysteries of love, sex, marriage, and duty, Hamilton subtly questions the very notion of disobedience. Should one disobey the heart's desires to protect others? Is any one person in the wrong when relationships run aground? Hamilton's characters are magnetic, their predicaments are unexpected and wholly absorbing, and her finely crafted prose is vivid and suspenseful, yet this novel runs like a car with a shimmy, and the problem is Henry. He narrates with just the sort of sarcasm a bright and sensitive teenager would employ, yet he's writing from an unspecified future date and, therefore, interjects his older self's more knowledgeable perspective in such a way as to blur rather than sharpen his persona. But perhaps this glitch only serves to highlight the truth implicit in this wise and funny tale: we must "come of age" many times over the course of a life, and it never gets any easier. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
"...lovely, resonant...there will be much to discuss about the haunting if arbitrary way that Ms. Hamilton makes past and present, love and war, loyalty and treachery all intersect." Simeon J. Maslin, The New York Times
"This warm, wise, and often very funny book is a worthy successor to the acclaimed Map of the World and is recommended for all fiction collections." Library Journal
"The mysteries at the core of an adolescent boy's being are placed in a tender, precious light in Hamilton's latest triumph (The History of a Prince, 1998, etc.), which also poignantly portrays a mother torn between a lover's embrace and the family she's long called her own." Kirkus Reviews
A high school senior stumbles upon his mother's e-mail account and realizes that everything is not as it seems. He discovers his mother Beth, a piano player with a group that specializes in antique music, uses "Liza38" as her screen name, one he had given to her, and he finds out that she's having an affair with a violin maker. Unabridged. 5 CDs.
About the Author
Jane Hamilton lives, works, and writes in an orchard farmhouse in Rochester, Wisconsin. Her first novel, The Book of Ruth, won the PENErnest Hemingway Award for best first novel and was a selection of the Oprah Book Club. Her second novel, A Map of the World, was also a selection of the Oprah Book Club and an international bestseller. Her most recent novel, The Short History of a Prince, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 1998.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Jane Hamilton's Disobedience, a novel that offers a fresh look at the age-old problems of love and betrayal, the hard lessons of history, and the fragility and strength of family life.
1. Why has Hamilton chosen Disobedience as her title? Which characters refuse to "obey"? In what ways is the novel as a whole about power relationships within the family and the pull of the heart against the roles each family member is expected to play?
2. For centuries, novelists have used letters to help tell their stories. Is Hamilton's use of e-mail simply another instance of a long-standing tradition, or is there a distinctly new element that e-mail communication brings to Disobedience?
3. In the first e-mail that Henry discovers, his mother informs Jane about her affair and writes, "This is an old story. There is nothing new in it" [p. 3]. Later, Henry wonders if there is "anything more interesting than the story of a man and a woman coming together out of nowhere" [p. 38]. And, indeed, the story of love and betrayal is both familiar and endlessly fascinating. In what ways is the novel both telling a story and commenting on the importance of stories in our lives? What does the book suggest about how stories shape and give meaning to human experience?
4. In one of their many arguments about Elvira's involvement in Civil War reenactments, Mrs. Shaw claims that her daughter is in the grip of a dangerous and embarrassing obsession, whereas Mr. Shaw believes that it is a passion "that will hold her in good stead for the rest of her education" [p. 25]. Which interpretation of Elvira's behavior seems more accurate? How does Elvira's preoccupation with the Civil War parallel her mother's involvement with Richard Polloco?
5. Why is Liza so drawn to Richard Polloco? How is he different from her husband? What aspects of his life and his past are especially appealing to her? Is Henry right in thinking she is attracted to a life with Polloco in part because it would be a life without her family?
6. Virtually all of the characters in Disobedience are affected, in one way or another, by history: Kevin Shaw teaches history, Henry is troubled by a possible past life, Elvira is immersed in the Civil War, Mrs. Shaw performs early music, and Richard Polloco and his family have experienced firsthand the horrors of European history. At one point, Henry describes the Civil War as "nothing more than a marriage spat . . . the midlife crisis followed by forgiveness. . . ." [p. 126]. What is Hamilton suggesting about the relationship between past and present, and between national and personal history, throughout the novel? What role does their shared family history play in Mrs. Shaw's decision about whether or not to leave her husband?
7. In the novel's climactic scene at Shiloh, Mrs. Shaw rushes to Elvira's defense, brandishing a knife and threatening to murder the men who would harm her daughter. How does this scene bring all of the major tensions of the novel to crisis and resolution? How does it change each member of the family, especially Mrs. Shaw and Elvira?
8. Henry views what happens to his sister at Bloody Pond as nothing more than a prank, while his friend Karen calls it rape [p. 240]. Each person witnesses the same event but reaches a different conclusion about it. Which seems more accurate? Why do they interpret this event so differently? What might Hamilton be saying about the power of storytelling?
9. To what extent is Disobedience a coming-of-age novel? What does Henry learn about himself, about family, about love? How does his character evolve from the beginning to the end of the novel? Has he achieved a healthy separation from his parents?
10. In what ways does Henry's awakening sexual desire for Lily parallel his mother's passion for Richard Polloco? How does it color his view of his mother's affair?
11. Mr. Shaw offers Henry some advice about love: "Just make sure the dream girl doesn't think you're going to solve her problems. There's a lot of pressure on us, to save the day, to be something more than we are. I'm afraid the idea of courtly love is still alive and well after eight centuries" [p. 193]. In what ways does this statement illuminate the Shaws' marriage? Does Mrs. Shaw expect her husband to be more than he is? Or is Kevin merely justifying his own shortcomings?
Shirana, the psychic, tells Mrs. Shaw that in a past life she was married to her son, and when Henry discovers this, he is naturally disconcerted. To what extent does Henry's preoccupation with his mother's affair represent an Oedipal attachment to her? How does he break this attachment?
13. Does Liza make the right choice in ending her relationship with Richard Polloco? Why does she decide to stay with her husband? How is the love he offers her--what Henry describes as "lackluster love" [p. 269]--different from what Polloco provides? Where does the novel seem to come down on the dilemma between passionate romance and stable affection?