Synopses & Reviews
The acclaimed author of "The Book of Joe" and "Everything Changes" tackles love, lust, and loss in the suburbs, in a stunning novel that is by turns heartfelt and riotously funny.
About the Author
Jonathan Tropper is the author of Everything Changes, The Book of Joe,
which was a BookSense selection, and Plan B
. He lives with his wife, Elizabeth, and their children in Westchester, New York, where he teaches writing at Manhattanville College. How to Talk to a Widower
was optioned by Paramount Pictures, and Everything Changes
and The Book of Joe
are also in development as feature films.
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
1. Doug suffered a tragic and sudden loss, but in the fall-out of this event hasnt always behaved the way one would hope to if in his shoes. Do you empathize with Doug or is his self-destructive behavior a detriment to his character? What allowances would you give to someone who is grieving, and when do their actions become unforgivable?
2. What are Dougs views on marriage both before and after meeting Hailey? Do they change after he loses his spouse? Do you foresee him eventually remarrying?
3. Following his stroke, Dougs father underwent a personality change. Describe how this changed his relationship with his family, especially with his son. Does Doug see him as a role model; why or why not? Discuss the parallels between father and son after a traumatic event.
4. How would the story be different if it were not told in the first-person narrative? Is Dougs omniscient perspective at the heart of the novel? How would the tone change if it was being told from someone outside looking in at Doug?
5. How does the novels suburban setting play a role? What is the authors attitude about living in the suburbs? Do you think the portrayal of the town is meant to be satirical?
6. The author is a man-were you reminded of this while reading the novel? Would a female author writing this story have as effectively portrayed the macho attitude and competitiveness that exists between the male characters?
7. “I had a wife. Her name was Hailey. Now shes gone. And so am I.” This passage appears on pages 74, 141, 282, 329, and 330 and serves as a mantra. When Doug repeats it, do you think this “reality check” provides him with comfort or is it destructive to his recovery? Does its meaning, or his reasons for evoking the mantra, evolve?
8. Do you feel that Doug overcomes his grief? Does it change him; if so, how? Does grieving necessarily change a person? Can it be treated like other ailments that one conquers, or is it a permanent part of the sufferer, something that continues to live within them, ever changing but present?
9. Discuss the significance of setting. How are family dynamics illustrated by their surroundings and locale? Is Haileys home and her belongings another character that haunts this story-the bra left hanging on the bathroom doorknob, the bottles of perfume collecting dust on her dresser?
10. How do the author and his protagonist use humor both in the sense of it being a literary tool, and as a way the characters relate to each other?
11. Dougs extended family is as endearing as they are dysfunctional. How do they compare to your ideal definition of a family?
12. Compare Dougs relationships with his two sisters-Claire, his twin, and Debbie, the youngest. What role does being a twin serve in Dougs life? How does Debbies wedding bring out the individual struggles of many of the characters in the novel?
13. Discuss betrayal as it manifests itself across a wide range of connections-between spouses, friends, and siblings.
14. “The course of true love is never straight.” (page 338) This is true for several of the characters. Do you think it is a universal truth? Is love so simple that people turn it into something which is complicated, or is it as complex as the people it involves?
15. Are you optimistic at the end of the novel that life will improve for Doug?
When twenty-seven year old Doug Parker traded in his bachelor pad for a house in the suburbs, complete with a teenaged stepson, he never expected that two years later he would suddenly lose the woman who meant everything to him. Without beautiful, confident Hailey to guide him through the challenges of now becoming a true surrogate father to her son Russ, Doug is on his own to navigate their new course.
And while he knows he cant travel back to the way things were, it will take a bossy twin sister under his roof, and some colorful mistakes, before Doug will realize how far he has come, and appreciate how far he will go.
A Q&A with author Jonathan Tropper on his book, How to Talk to a Widower
What’s your typical writing day like? And what environment is most conducive to your process?
I generally try to treat writing like any other job. I wake up early and am at my desk before nine am. To further the illusion of a job, I don’t work at home, but commute to a local college about twenty minutes away. I find by treating it like a real job, I can attach a modicum of discipline to the whole enterprise. Of course, in a real job, you can’t say to your boss, “It’s not going well today,” and then blow off the afternoon at the movies, which I do sometimes. But for the most part, I try to write straight through from nine until two or so. Then I take a break, and then I revisit what I’ve written and do a bit of editing, so that I’m ready to break new ground the following day.
I also find I don’t write well in a quiet office. I do much better with the quiet bustle of a small college library or a quiet bookstore café.
Can you name the first book you read that inspired you in some special way? Why?
I’ve been inspired by numerous books, but the two books I always seem to come back to are Bright Lights Big City, by Jay McInerney, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, by Peter Hedges. Bright Lights is so tight, so concise, and yet so fully realized. It would take me twice as many words to say what McInerney says, and I still wouldn’t say it as well. And What’s Eating Gilbert Grape has such a wonderful cast of characters, so flawed and sympathetic and real, while still being odd and outrageously funny. Gilbert Grape was the book that made me want to be a writer. Whenever I get stuck, those are the two books I go back to for inspiration. In a wonderful coincidence, Peter Hedges, who has since gone on to become a successful screenwriter and director, is now writing and directing the movie version of my novel, Everything Changes.
Which came first: the characters, or the storyline?
For me, it always starts with the character. I may have a rough idea of the premise I want to explore, but it won’t go anywhere until I’ve really developed a complete understanding of who I’m writing about. I’ll write pages and pages about my protagonist, most of which will never make it into the novel. But by the time the novel is really getting underway, I’ll know him cold; his past, his present, his hurts, his dreams, and where I want to drop him off when the ride is over.
From the Hardcover edition.