Synopses & Reviews
Her Last Death
begins as the phone rings early one morning in the Montana house where Susanna Sonnenberg lives with her husband and two young sons. Her aunt is calling to tell Susanna her mother is in a coma after a car accident. She might not live. Any daughter would rush the thousands of miles to her mother's bedside. But Susanna cannot bring herself to go. Her courageous memoir explains why.
Glamorous, charismatic and a compulsive liar, Susanna's mother seduced everyone who entered her orbit. With outrageous behavior and judgment tinged by drug use, she taught her child the art of sex and the benefits of lying. Susanna struggled to break out of this compelling world, determined, as many daughters are, not to become her mother.
Sonnenberg mines tender and startling memories as she writes of her fierce resolve to forge her independence, to become a woman capable of trust and to be a good mother to her own children. Her Last Death is riveting, disarming and searingly beautiful.
"Sonnenberg's curse is her beautiful self-centered and crazy mother, who lies continually, does drugs and navigates through the world with sex as her sole point of reference. Her father is cold and distant. Add in abundant family money, and you have the story of a young girl who grows up in a world of privilege, abuse and despicable behavior all around. Readers get a good dose of drug use, foul language, manipulative behaviors, an accounting of Sonnenberg's affair with her high school English teacher and one chapter titled 'Sex with Everybody.' The freelance writer's story is titillating, and her writing is strong and clear, though the power is diluted when she blurs the lines of nonfiction: 'I have conflated or changed some events and dialogue, and created occasional composites.' Readers not bothered by the conceit will likely follow along through the outrageous and nasty operational tactics of Sonnenberg's mother until the story line leads to her redemption." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[T]he wonder of this memoir is that the author survived her traumatic childhood and found a way of turning her memories into a fiercely observed, fluently written book that captures the chaos and confusions of her youth." Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
"Tragic but arresting a worthy companion to Simone de Beauvoir's and Vivian Gornick's explorations of the complicated mother-daughter dynamic." Kirkus Reviews
"An irresistible book that is shimmering with life and the portrait of a glorious, frenzied, seductive woman who of necessity has been left, along with Susanna Sonnenberg's young womanhood, behind. Her mother." James Salter, author of Last Night and Burning the Days
"Riveting, sexy, smart, and brazenly honest, Her Last Death is a memoir that demands and rewards total immersion. I couldn't put it down, didn't want to, and was sorry when it was over. Susanna Sonnenberg is a wonderful writer, and this is a marvelous debut." John Burnham Schwartz, author of Reservation Road and Claire Marvel
"Her Last Death is an emotional thriller. It is a manual for men and smart, searching individuals of any age or economic levels. For most of the book it is a disturbing story, yet at the end you might feel like cheering. It is a beautiful, beautiful book and I plan to give it to my nearest and dearest." Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes and Teacher Man
"There's shame in these pages, and an artful floundering for acceptance and understanding. Also, as in her tender memory of her mother scooping her shivering, 3-year-old body out of the bathtub and wrapping her tight in a warm towel, there's beauty." (Grade: B+) Entertainment Weekly
About the Author
Susanna Sonnenberg was born in London in 1965 and grew up in New York. Her essays have appeared in Elle, O, the Oprah Magazine and Parenting, among other magazines. She lives in Montana with her husband and two sons.
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
1. Her Last Death opens with the report of Daphne's car accident in Barbados and the author's decision not to go to her. Readers have the rest of the book to contemplate Susanna's choice while learning about the family history behind it. Near the book's end Sonnenberg writes, "What kind of person doesn't go to her mother's deathbed?....I didn't go because I couldn't. That's what had become of us" (p. 268). Did you agree with Sonnenberg's decision? Did your feeling about her choice change after she unfolded the story of her childhood and adolescence with her mother?
2. When Susanna meets her English teacher Wyatt for the first time Daphne tells her, "He adores you....Trust me...[t]he world is about sex" (p. 112). Susanna loses her virginity to Wyatt when she is sixteen and engages in a lengthy affair with him. She subsequently spends many years having sex "with everybody." "I used to court oblivion, cancel everything, forget trouble. That was sex's delicious point, the glittering instruction of lust and its momentum" (p. 189). How do Daphne's promiscuity and lack of boundaries influence Susanna's attitude toward sex and her choice of sexual partners? Discuss the theme of sex in the book and the various ways it is used.
3. Sonnenberg can be self critical. She writes openly about what she sees as her own flaws. When she learns her boyfriend Gordon has left her for a friend of theirs she writes, "She'd been to our parties. She'd asked how Gordon was in bed....I was supposed to be in that role, the late-arriving seductress, the snake of a friend" (p. 185). Why does Susanna describe herself this way? What other elements make up her identity and how do they evolve from her adolescence into her thirties? Did you find yourself feeling judgmental and if so, why? How does her mother evolve?
4. Daphne abuses illegal and prescription drugs, is hospitalized for a nervous breakdown, physically assaults Susanna and lies compulsively. Sonnenberg never diagnoses Daphne's behavior; instead she describes the outcomes that arise from "the tangle of being with her" (p.6). How is her omission unusual?
5. Aside from leading to an estrangement with her mother, in what other ways did Sonnenberg's decision to stay in Montana after Daphne's accident change her life? Consider her various family relationships, her sense of self, her history with her mother, and her aspirations for her own children.
6. How might you say that Sonnenberg's relationship with her mother is in some ways a heightened version of any typical mother-daughter relationship? What qualities of their relationship are most distorted?
7. Writing is important to Susanna's life. What role do writing and reading play in Sonnenberg's telling of this story? What is the effect of the diary entries in the book?
8. Although Sonnenberg's father could be critical and distant, and did nothing to protect his daughters from Daphne's harm, Sonnenberg has a good relationship with him as an adult. "He could hurt my feelings, still exasperate me with his self-absorption, but we enjoyed each other" (p. 272). Why is Susanna able to forgive her father and get along with him?
9. Discuss the complicated relationship between Daphne's expectations for Susanna's life and Susanna's own expectations and perception of herself. How is this a common and difficult issue for all parents and children?
10. Sonnenberg provides a note at the beginning of the book: "This is a work of memoir and subject to the imperfections of memory. I have been faithful to what I remember, and people in my family may remember shared experiences differently...I have changed all names but my own to emphasize that this story could only be mine." What does Her Last Death show about the nature of memory, especially in families? How else is the story only Susanna's, and not her mother's or her family's?
11. Susanna arrives in Montana ready to start fresh and live a simpler life, emulating the behavior of her future husband Christopher. "With Christopher everything was the machine of the oiled world, just going along" (p. 202). Yet by the time she checks into her first motel she'd "already lied, couldn't go more than a day. Tomorrow I'd start again" (p. 202). How does lying help or hinder Susanna as she tries to cope with the world? How does she begin to understand her habits and to break them?
12. How does the presence of wealth in Susanna's family shape her mother's behavior and the family dynamic? How do the issues of wealth and class shape the book as a whole? How do Daphne's wealth and beauty influence people's perception of her and of her parenting skills?
13. Susanna is strongly drawn to Christopher's honesty. In what other ways is Christopher different from anyone Susanna has ever met? What makes him the driving force behind Susanna's transformation? Is he also flawed?
14. It has been only five months since Susanna's abortion when Christopher decides he is ready for children. "I took it on glumly. The thought kept coming back: I would still be pregnant if he'd realized a little faster. My March 30th baby was due in two months" (p. 226). How did you feel about Christopher's change of heart? Why do you think Sonnenberg includes the abortion in the book?
15. Going through letters from her mother, Sonnenberg is struck by the way Daphne "wanted to prove so much, conquer my resistance. Again and again, her longing for me overtakes the letter...This is the hardest thing for me to read, how much she wanted me, how distant I stayed" (p. 259). Did you sympathize with Daphne? Do you think there was any way for Susanna and Daphne to continue a relationship?
16. How do the few flashbacks at the end of the book emphasize the difficulty of the choice Sonnenberg has made? Why do you think she chose to showcase these particular incidents at the end? How are they related?
17. How does Her Last Death compare to other memoirs you've read, particularly those focusing on parent-child relationships or difficult childhoods?
Enhance Your Book Club:
1. Visit the author's website at www.susannasonnenberg.com for reviews, upcoming appearances, and other news. Many of Sonnenberg's personal essays from such publications such as O, the Oprah Magazine and Parenting can also be found online. (Elle articles can't be found online)
2. Choose a memory or detail about yourself that you haven't admitted or revealed and share it. What does it feel like to say it aloud, to have others hear it, to invite other people's responses?
3. If you liked Her Last Death, try some other memoirs about unusual childhoods, such as The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, The Liars' Club and Cherry by Mary Karr, This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff, Stop-Time by Frank Conroy, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy, The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolff, Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison, and Them by Francine du Plessix Gray.