Synopses & Reviews
It seemed to June that she had the perfect marriage until the day Ronald Pruett was arrested for the murder of Vernay Hanks. Through her job at an elementary school, June knew both the victim's child and Pruett. Moreover, on the day of the murder, she had almost taken a ride from Pruett herself. This connection with the murder becomes an obsession - leading June into a deceitful and increasingly complicated relationship with the dead woman's brother and her child. Pretending to have been a friend of the victim, June inserts herself into their lives - and through this deception, soon discovers some disturbing things about her marriage and herself.
Sharp and full of unsettling twists, Twenty Questions is a gripping story that speaks of violence and betrayal, feminism, and reinvention. Above all, it speaks of the human condition to resurrect itself, whatever the cost.
"Clement's subtle prose renders June's existential pondering and anxious thoughts convincingly and the novel's plot elements click...A fine debut." - Publishers Weekly
"Touching, funny...Twenty Questions passes the test with an A." - BookPage
"Twenty Questions peels away the facade of a happy marriage and shows the utter wasteland beneath the lies...Such is the power of Clement's storytelling." - The Oregonian.
About the Author
Alison Clement has been a waitress, bartender, housepainter, and fruit picker. She lives with her partner and their two children in western Oregon, where she is an elementary school librarian.
Reading Group Guide
Life can change in an instant. For June Duvall, that moment came on a spring afternoon when her car broke down. Normally she would have accepted a ride from a seemingly harmless man, Ronald Pruett, but instead she opted to walk. Later that day Pruett murdered a woman, Vernay Hanks, setting in motion the unraveling of June's comfortable life and jeopardizing her decade-long marriage.
Stricken with guilt and obsessed by the thought that she could have been the one who died, June visits the Hanks home. Here she meets Vernay's brother, Harlan, and 10-year-old daughter, Cindy, a student at the elementary school where June works. June's life is soon intertwined with those of Harlan and Cindy, based on June's impulsive and well-intentioned lie that she was friends with Vernay. As time passes, questions surface about Vernay's actions in the months leading up to her death. . . and ultimately reveal a devastating connection to June.
Witty and poignant, gripping and perceptive, Twenty Questions explores how the choices we make govern our lives, how even the most innocent of lies can have serious consequences, and how a pivotal, split-second decision is sometimes all it takes to alter the direction of one's life.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. June admits that she "usually said yes when people insisted" (2). Why then did she decline a ride from Ronald Pruett on the day her car broke down? After reading the story and getting to know June, is it surprising that she would have turned down the ride? Why or why not?
2. June tells herself on several occasions that she will not go the Hanks' house again. What compels her to keep returning? Are the visits something she's doing for herself, or for Cindy and Harlan?
3. When June first goes to the Hanks' home, why does she tell Harlan she was friends with Vernay? What prompts her to lie about who she is and why she's there? "Sometimes people lie out of laziness, [June] thought. Sometimes a lie is an accident; sometimes it's a kindness" (97). How would you characterize the lies that June tells? How does June see them?
4. June's initial impression of Harlan is that he is "a simple man" and "not a thinker" (57). Is she justified in forming this opinion, or is she jumping to conclusions? What makes her change her mind about Harlan?
5. June eventually finds out there were other people who might also have affected the outcome for Vernay on that fateful day, including Harlan, who had not fixed the brakes on his sister's car, and Mimi, the waitress who switched shifts with Vernay. Does having this information make June feel less responsible for Vernay's murder? How so?
6. Why does June take some of Vernay's things? What's the significance of the things she chose and why does she later wear them?
7. June "had told Bill she didn't care if they had children or not. She had meant it, but either she had changed or she had said it without full knowledge of her own mind" (95). Describe June's feelings about and attitude toward motherhood. Does she regret not having a child of her own? How much influence did Bill have on her decision? Why do you think June was drawn to working at an elementary school?
8. How did June's perception of her marriage differ from reality? Once she had some distance from Bill and from their marriage, what things did June notice about their relationship that she previously had not?
9. At what point does June acknowledge the truth about Bill and Vernay? After Bill admits to having an affair with Vernay, why does June continue to live in the same house and even sleep with him?
10. The novel states that June "didn't know how to measure her own distress within the context of the world" (168). What does that statement reveal about June that she thinks about her life in this way?
11. Why does June decide to quit her job at the elementary school? What is the significance of June taking only a few possessions with her when she leaves her house for the last time?
12. Compare June to the other women in the novel -- Louise, Mona, and even Vernay. Is June more alike or different from these female characters? How do you think June views herself?
13. When June goes to see Harlan at the salvage yard he tells her Ronald Pruett did not kill Vernay. "Everything was built on a mistake," thinks June. "She had befriended the family. She had found out about Bill, and she had left him. She had lost everything" (262). If June had it to do over again, do you think she would do anything different? If so, what would those things be?
14. Did you find June to be a compelling character and an interesting narrator? Why or why not?
15. Discuss the novel's ending. What do you think the future holds for June? How about for some of the other characters like Harlan, Cindy, Bill, and Mona?
16. What themes does Alison Clement explore in this novel? Are they seamlessly woven into the narrative? What did you enjoy the most about Twenty Questions? How about the least?
Enhance Your Book Club
June often compares situations and people in her life to movie scenes and characters. Take turns talking about who you would cast in a film version of Twenty Questions.
Play a variation of the guessing game Twenty Questions, only instead of random objects use your group's past reading selections. One member selects a book and the other members each ask up to twenty questions in order to identify it.
Forget the kind of fancy fare that June's cheating chef husband, Bill, prepares. Serve up chicken enchiladas, the dish that Cindy asks June to make. Try one of several chicken enchiladas recipes at epicurious.com. And for dessert? Root beer floats.