Synopses & Reviews
Excerpts from reviews of Frederick Busch's Girls
"Girls is about as close to perfect as a novel gets. Its prose is clean and strong but never advertises its own quiet brilliance, its characters are sharply defined and irresistible, and its plot is suspenseful enough to keep you up until dawn."
"Combining the quick pace of a detective story with the bold poetics of literary work, Frederick Busch's taut new novel, Girls, is a dark, compulsively readable drama.... From the makings of an all-too-common evening-news item, Busch has fashioned a novel of considerable weight and dimension. By imbuing the lurid with the introspective, he has given a stock story intelligence, humanity, and terrific range."
"When a book is this successful it's impossible to detect any sign of artistic struggle.... Jack is such an absorbing and sympathetic narrator.... nothing [Busch] has published in the past has quite prepared me for the seductive beauty of this very disturbing book.... Its pitch-perfect dialogue, skillfully contrived plot, and authentically wintry atmosphere are all exceptional, but a great deal of its strength comes from the moral complexity of its characters.... The highest compliment a reader can pay a literary thriller--or any novel, for that matter--is to claim that the book is nearly as intricate and mysterious as life itself, that the reader has lived in the book as if it were a particularly lifelike dream, and cared about its characters as if they were real. All these claims are true about Girls".
--The Washington Post Book World
"It is a dark tale, but it's told with an economical mastery and intensity that only a few current novelists can command. Busch even manages to create a dog who is real, touching but never cute, and the perfect life-enhancing foil for the human sorrows around him."
"The novel's social realism gives it the page-turning pace of a mystery. But Busch's masterly pairing of dark wit and tender mercy is what makes Girls a great work."
"This well-written and engrossing novel is part mystery and part exploration of how grief can manhandle a marriage."
"Girls is about pain and what happens when pain can't find its way out of the human vessel....Girls is unusually entertaining.... In the end, this is a chilling story about the guilt of adulthood."
"Though the crime story is intriguing, it is Jack's growing insight about his marriage, his town, and himself that transforms this page-turner about lost children into a tender and eloquent examination of the even greater mystery that is the human heart."
"Fierce, wise, gripping and true, Girls marks the continuing evolution of a first-rate American storyteller.... the triumph of Girls is in its clear-eyed compassion for all those who try to flee from the bedrock realities of their lives."
--The New York Times Book Review
"A complex and disturbing vision of the world as a place filled with danger powers this fascinating novel.... It all works superbly as a conventional thriller, though the story's most effective as a harrowing expression of the fragility of our defenses against loss and death, and a moving characterization of its memorable protagonist, a decent man who struggles against powerful odds to remain one."
"Jack is a campus cop at one of those small liberal arts colleges that dot the landscape of upper New York State. His compensation includes one free course per year, which gives him
a second, even more tenuous connection to the college as a part-time student. Jack lives a similarly marginal personal life. He is all but estranged from his wife Fanny, and both are emotionally numb in the aftermath of the sudden death of an infant daughter. Bereft of feeling, they absorb and then regenerate the constant cold of an unrelenting winter. Jack's Sisyphean fate is to be the rescuer of girls, other people's children, at risk in a world in which winter is a fact as well as a metaphor. He repeats this role, rescuing other girls, renewing his penance for failing to save his own daughter. This is the 18th novel for Frederick Busch, English teacher at Colgate and former director of the Iowa Writers Workshop. He transplants his main character Jack, along with Jack's unnamed Labrador 'Dog' from an earlier collection of short stories, Absent Friends. This reincarnation allows Busch to work out all Jack's contempt for the protected academic life, where children are sent to the privileged precincts of college as 'winter camp for the overindulged.' Busch has written a novel of middle age, portraying a world where evil and innocence are mingled in inextricable ways. He struggles to keep the evil at bay while remaining sensitive to the innocence." Reviewed by Daniel Weiss, Virginia Quarterly Review (Copyright 2006 Virginia Quarterly Review)
The death of their young daughter has devastated Jack and Fanny, and left a chasm in their relationship that Jack desperately seeks to heal. When a teenage girl vanishes from their Upstate New York community in the depths of a bitter winter, uncovering her fate becomes Jack's self-appointed mission...and his hope for salvation from despair. If only he can find her in time.
GIRLS is an extraordinary blend of compelling mystery and haunting reflection on the human condition by a novelist of astounding lyrical and narrative gifts.
"Girls" is a moving, suspenseful, and insightful novel of one man's struggle to solve a grim mystery and find redemption in the wake of family tragedy. Frederick Busch's blend of compelling mystery and haunting reflection on the human condition proves him to be a novelist of astouding lyrical and narrative gifts. 288 pp.
About the Author
A New York Times
In the unrelenting cold and bitter winter of upstate New York, Jack and his wife, Fanny, are trying to cope with the desperate sorrow they feel over the death of their young daughter. The loss forms a chasm in their relationship as Jack, a sardonic Vietnam vet, looks for a way to heal them both.
Then, in a nearby town, a fourteen-year-old girl disappears somewhere between her home and church. Though she is just one of the hundreds of children who vanish every year in America, Jack turns all his attention to this little girl. For finding what has become of this child could be Jack's salvation--if he can just get to her in time. . . .
Reading Group Guide
1. The weather in Girls
is severe and relentless. What role does this weather play in the novel, and why? What other books have you studied in which the weather was such a large part of the story? How do climate and landscape tend to affect the lives of individuals as well as larger societies?
2. Jack is a Vietnam veteran, a self-educated, blue-collar kind of guy. His wife, Fanny, is an emergency room nurse, a job requiring considerable education and training. In what ways do you think their differing backgrounds affect their relationship? Are these effects beneficial or damaging? What commonalities can you find in their backgrounds and/or jobs? Do you think these are sufficient to keep them together?
3. Did you want Jack and Fanny to get back together? Why or why not, and why do you think Busch arrived at the ending?
4. Do you think this book fits into the typical detective-novel genre? Why or why not? Why do you think readers like to categorize types of novels? Do you think Girls belongs to any distinct category or genre?
5. The first chapter directly follows the final chapter in chronology. Why do you think the author placed it at the beginning of the book? Did you go back and re-read the first chapter after completing the novel? Did doing so alter your perception of the book? If so, how?
6. Why do you think Jack and Fanny couldn't discuss the death of their baby after so much time? Has there ever been something you or someone you know couldn't or wouldn't discuss? Why do you think people close themselves away like that? How might people avoid doing so, or help each other overcome it?
7. In recent years there unfortunately have been many highly publicized cases of missing girls like Janice Tanner. Do you think these cases have always occurred and that are just being played up by the media today? Or do you think something has shifted in our society that is causing an increase in such tragedies? Do you discuss these disappearances with your friends or your families? If so, how do you respond? Do you feel safe in modern society?
8. Jack lives in a world of extreme coldness, bleakness, and silence. It seems that the only lightness in his world is his nameless dog. Why do you think this is so? What function does the dog serve in the novel as a whole? In Jack's life? What do you think the author had in mind when he chose to include the dog in this story?
9. When did you as a reader think you knew who was responsible for Janice Tanner's disappearance? Who did you think did it, and why? Were you right?
10. What role does Professor Piri play in this drama?
11. Fanny is repeatedly described as capable and competent, and of course, her job is one of helping to save lives. Juxtapose this with the circumstances and aftermath of their daughter's death, and discuss what effect this combination has had on Fanny.
12. As this is a work of fiction, the writer could do with his characters whatever he wished. Why do you think the author let Jack get beat up so badly?
13. Jack and Fanny's marriage is a paradox: two people who love and are bound to each other, and yet cannot seem to live together. Discuss this paradox and why it exists. Do you know anyone with such a paradox in their lives? What is it like, and how do they resolve or live with it?
14. Why do you think Jack found Rosalie Piri so irresistible? He obviously loved Fanny and really wanted to make it work with her; yet he barely hesitated before he got involved with Rosalie. What do you think motivated him, or prevented him from resisting the affair with her?
15. Why didn't Jack drag Fanny in to talk to Archie? Why didn't Archie push for them to get counseling together? Many people in our society often resist counseling when they most need it. Why do you think this is so?
16. Jack goes into the Tanners' church, and still finds himself unable to pray. Yet he really wants to. Why can't Jack pray?
17. Identify all the different girls in the book who could contribute to the book's title. What do they all have in common? How do they differ? Do you think Girls was a good choice of title? If not, what might you have named the book?
18. Why does Jack harass William, the drug dealer from Staten Island? Jack knows he's not really guilty, at least not of being involved in the Janice Tanner case. Yet he knowingly beats him, and quite brutally at that. Why would Jack, who is basically a good man, do such a thing?
19. What do you think was the author's purpose in including the subplot about the vice president's impending visit?
Reader's Guide copyright © 1998 by The Ballantine Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.