Synopses & Reviews
In a captivating departure from the Deep South setting of his previous fiction, Steve Yarbrough now gives us a richly nuanced portrait of a marriage being reinvented in a small town in the Northeast, in his most surprising and compelling novel yet.
When Kristin Stevens loses her administrative job in California’s university system, she and her husband, Cal, relocate to Massachusetts. Kristin takes a position at a smaller, less prestigious college outside Boston and promptly becomes entangled in its delicate, overheated politics. Cal, whose musical talent is nothing more than a consuming avocation, spends his days alone, fixing up their new home. And as they settle into their early fifties, the two seem to exist in separate spheres entirely. At the same time, their younger neighbor Matt Drinnan watches his ex-wife take up with another man in his hometown, with only himself to blame. He and Kristin, both facing an acute sense of isolation, gravitate toward each other, at first in hope of a platonic confidant but then, inevitably, of something more. The Realm of Last Chances provides us with a subtle, moving exploration of relationships, loneliness and our convoluted attempts to reach out to one another.
Born in Indianola, Mississippi, Steve Yarbrough is the author of five previous novels and three collections of stories. A PEN/Faulkner finalist, he has received the Mississippi Authors Award, the California Book Award, the Richard Wright Award, and another prize from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters. He teaches at Emerson College and lives with his wife in Stoneham, Massachusetts.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested reading list are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Realm of Last Chances, Steve Yarbrough’s searing story of adultery and academic fraud set in a small New England town.
1. Soon after they arrive in Massachusetts, Kristin observes her husband sleeping and reflects that “she thought she knew how large his hand was, but for an instant it looked as garish as a flesh-colored fielder’s glove. That it could once have been the source of pleasure seemed impossible” (p. 11). In what ways do Kristin and Cal not
know each other? Why is their marriage poised for a catastrophe? Is there a hint of violence in the description of Cal’s hand?
2. Why does Kristin have an affair with Matt? Is she motivated more by unhappiness in her marriage or by something Matt can give her that her husband can’t, or won’t?
3. How has Cal been shaped by his relationship with his father? Why does he despise him so intensely?
4. More generally, what role does family history play in the novel?
5. In what ways are Kristin, Cal, and Matt each struggling with a sense of failure and feelings of loneliness and isolation? How do these feelings drive them to act?
6. Why does Cal beat up the petty criminal so brutally when breaking up the robbery in the convenience store? And does this violent episode cast a sense of menace over the rest of the novel?
7. The Realm of Last Chances gives readers an inside look at academia, warts and all. What are the most disillusioning aspects of this life as portrayed in the novel?
8. Why does Cal open up to Dave’s wife, Gloria, about nearly killing his girlfriend's father when he was a teenager? What effect does this confession have on Cal? What might have happened if he hadn’t been able to confide in her?
9. What makes Cal such a complex character? What are some of his most incongruous traits?
10. At their final meeting, Matt tells Kristin: “There’s a lot I don’t know about you. But I’m going to figure it out. Everything you never got around to telling me? I’ll be down the street imagining it. You’ll see the light on in my window, and you’ll know that’s what I’m up to. I’ll be imagining you. In fact, I’ve already started” [p. 265]. Instead of getting Kristin, Matt gets to imagine her. Losing her has launched the novel he’s wanted to write for years. Is this a better outcome for him?
11. Matt steals from his employer, Dilson-Alvarez commits academic fraud, Kristin cheats on her husband, Cal lies about his past, and his father swindles his clients. What is the significance of all these acts of deceit? Are there important ethical differences between them, or are they essentially the same? And what picture of human nature does this present?
12. Discussing the trend toward jargon and obfuscation in academic discourse, the chair of the history department tells Kristen: “I’m an old-fashioned proponent of event-based history who clings to the simple-minded notion that what’s most interesting is a well-told story” [p. 180]. In what ways does The Realm of Last Chances itself demonstrate the importance of personal history and the power of a well-told story?
13. The provost, Joanne Bedard, seems to be an ill-tempered, cynical and self-serving administrator, and Kristen’s secretary, Donna, seems brusque, hardened and one-dimensional. How do your impressions of these women soften and deepen by the book’s end, as more is revealed about them? Why is this process both surprising and satisfying?
14. In what ways can The Realm of Last Chances be read as a critique of contemporary America?
15. What has brought Kristin, Cal, and Matt into the realm of last chances, “where the ice is thin and apt to break and caution is no currency” [p. 153]? What do each of them make of the last chances they’re offered?
16. In the novel’s beautiful final paragraph, Kristin lets images from her distant and recent past “burn like embers” in her mind. What might Yarborough be suggesting by ending the novel with this?