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A Likely Story
Table of Contents
About The Book
“A thoroughly modern story of family mistakes and redemption that I couldn’t put down.” —KJ Dell’Antonia, New York Times bestselling author
The only child of an iconic American novelist discovers a shocking tangle of family secrets that upends everything she thought she knew about her parents, her gilded childhood, and her own stalled writing career in this brilliantly observed standout debut.
Growing up in the nineties in New York City as the only child of famous parents was both a blessing and a curse for Isabelle Manning. Her beautiful society hostess mother, Claire, and New York Times bestselling author father, Ward, were the city’s intellectual It couple. Ward’s glamorous obligations often took him away from Isabelle, but Claire made sure her childhood was always filled with magic and love.
Now an adult, all Isabelle wants is to be a successful writer like her father but after many false starts and the unexpected death of her mother, she faces her upcoming thirty-fifth birthday alone and on the verge of a breakdown. Her anxiety only skyrockets when she uncovers some shocking truths about her parents and begins wondering if everything she knew about her family was all based on an elaborate lie.
Wry, wise, and propulsive, A Likely Story is punctuated with fragments of a compulsively readable book-within-a-book about a woman determined to steal back the spotlight from a man who has cheated his way to the top. The characters seem eerily familiar but is the plot based on fact? And more importantly, who is the author?
Reading Group Guide
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In A Likely Story, the only child of an iconic American novelist discovers a shocking tangle of family secrets that upends everything she thought she knew about her parents, upon her mother’s death. Isabelle Manning finds growing up in nineties New York City to be a blessing and a curse. Her beautiful society-hostess mother, Claire, and New York Times–bestselling-author father, Ward, were the city’s intellectual “It” couple. Ward’s glamorous obligations often took him away from Isabelle, but Claire made sure her childhood was always filled with magic and love.
Now an adult, Isabelle wants more than anything to be a successful writer like her father, but after many false starts and the unexpected death of her mother, she faces her upcoming thirty-fifth birthday alone and on the verge of a breakdown. Her anxiety only skyrockets when she uncovers some shocking truths about her parents and begins wondering if everything she knew about her family was all based on an elaborate lie.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. The prologue of this novel begins from Claire’s point of view, in 1989. Why do you think the author chooses to begin the novel this way?
2. At the funeral, Isabelle notes of her father that “he does best with an audience.” How does this observation recur throughout the novel?
3. With the arrival of her thirty-fifth birthday, Isabelle thinks that “she viewed age as almost a failure of will, something she could avoid with sheer determination.” How do the characters in this novel grapple with aging (both their own and that of those around them), mortality, and legacy?
4. At her birthday lunch, Glenda gifts Isabelle a copy of every book on the New York Times bestseller list, telling her “you can make your writing more like those writers, who clearly have more of a handle on what they’re doing,” and later “Everyone’s copying someone.” What do you think of this scene? Do you think Glenda’s tactic is well-meaning?
5. This novel draws its title from a line in Underpainting: “So Livia thinks she’s the mastermind behind Aiden’s success? Oh please, a likely story.” Does your understanding of the title change knowing this context?
6. The story is told from four perspectives—that of Claire, Isabelle, Ward, and Brian. What do you think each perspective adds to the narrative as a whole?
7. Livia serves as an alter ego for Claire, although she is published as Isabelle’s character. How do you think Isabelle interprets this character, knowing that she is a conduit for her mother? Does Isabelle’s ending of the story vary from what Claire might have done?
8. Isabelle’s godmother and Claire’s best friend, Glenda, is often at odds with Ward, who describes her as “self-righteous, enthralled with her own import.” In many ways, she and Ward can be similar. Why do you think Claire is drawn to this type of person? And how do they contrast with Claire’s own personality?
9. Ward sabotages Isabelle’s book submission due to his “vicious, consuming envy” that Isabelle “got to be the new, shiny thing.” How does Ward’s envy of his own daughter play out in this novel?
10. In a confrontation with Brian toward the end of the novel, he tells Isabelle that “your primary identity is being your father’s daughter.” Isabelle’s later essay identifies herself as “the writer’s daughter.” Which parent do you think wins out in the end?
11. Claire puts aside Underpainting shortly after Isabelle’s accident in Jamaica, implying that she wants to refocus her attention on her daughter. Do you think this is true? What other forces might have caused her to abandon it?
12. Much of this novel turns on the question of authorship. Ward dismisses Claire’s contributions to his early novels. But at what point does Claire’s editing give Claire an authorship claim over Ward’s work? Is the same true of Isabelle’s “editing” of her mother’s work? Discuss why or why not.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. In the spirit of this novel, have each member of your group research a different literary scandal and report to the group. There are plenty to choose from!
2. Isabelle considers her book necklace from Ward among her most precious possessions—until she receives one of her own book from Brian. Bring a piece of jewelry that is personally meaningful to you to discuss.
3. Visit the author’s website, leighmcmullanabramson.com, to learn more about her and the book.
A Conversation with Leigh McMullan Abramson
Congratulations on your debut novel! So much of this book centers on the difficulty of writing and publishing a first novel. What drew you to that topic? Did you have any qualms about talking about the publishing process in a debut?
Thank you! Of course, as a debut author, I am familiar with the struggle to write and publish a novel. But what originally drew me to this topic is the question of what makes a writer “a writer.” When I worked as a lawyer, it was very simple to say I was a lawyer—I had a law degree, I’d passed the bar, and I practiced law. But with writing it felt more complex. Am I a writer if I take it seriously and think of it as my job? Or is it only when I am published? Or only after I’ve published a certain number of articles or books? I started with a character grappling with these identity questions. Isabelle equates being a writer with being published. She craves that public recognition. But by the end of the book her assumptions have been challenged.
I didn’t have any qualms about writing about the publishing process, because I think the themes of the book are broader. Isabelle’s particular goal is publishing a book, but her struggle will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever pursued a long-standing dream.
In many ways, the love story here is between Claire and Isabelle, but you also included large sections from Ward’s and Brian’s perspectives. What did those chapters add for you?
I think Ward’s perspective is essential for the reader to empathize and relate to Isabelle. Ward was a narcissistic and neglectful parent, and this had an impact on his daughter, who adopted some of his warped worldview. Ward’s chapters also let the reader in on the fact that what Isabelle believes will make her happy—publishing a book—might not. Ward is hugely successful, and yet, in many ways, he is as struggling and desperate as Isabelle.
I view Brian as the stand-in for the reader. As an outsider, he can see the Mannings more clearly than they can see themselves. Brian is taken in by Isabelle’s sophistication, but he also knows a world outside Isabelle’s tiny, elite New York City bubble. Brian acts as a kind of one-man Greek chorus and, in the end, is able to serve up some hard truths to his fancy friend.
The book-within-a-book structure is so clever here, especially as we learn what the novel portions belong to and who the author is. What inspired you to include parts of Underpainting in the book?
The first drafts of this book did not contain the snippets of Underpainting. But I became uncomfortable making the reader take my word for it that this manuscript was really, really amazing. I struggled for a long time over how to include the actual writing from Underpainting. COVID lockdown forced me to take a break from writing to care full-time for my kids. But when they went back to school that September, I went back in and started writing the Underpainting portions. The breakthrough was deciding that the snippets should be in first person to help distinguish them from the main narrative. And I credit stepping away from the draft for so long with allowing me write those sections in a distinct voice.
You tackle a number of different time periods here, moving from the present day to as far back as Claire meeting Ward. Was that always part of the story? What inspired you to add these scenes from the past?
I knew that Claire needed to be a real character in the book, not just this ghostly presence. Since she has died at the start of the book, the only way to do that was to travel back in time to be with the living, breathing Claire. It was important for me to show how deeply Claire, Ward, and Isabelle are intertwined, how impossible it is to separate their stories from one another, and to do that I needed to go to the origins of Ward and Claire’s relationship and to Isabelle’s childhood.
Who was your favorite character to write and why?
That is a tough question, but I’d have to say Ward. His voice came to me most easily when I started writing, and his self-involvement is so delicious. I also enjoyed the challenge of making him an egomaniac, but also pretty sad and pathetic, so he is not completely villainous. I wanted it to be impossible to hate him entirely. I hope I succeeded.
The scene I might have had the most fun writing was Brian at CrossFit. Maybe because I have never actually been to CrossFit—exercise is best experienced as fantasy.
The conversation surrounding authorship is so fascinating here, as each character seems to have a different opinion. Where do you draw the line?
I think it’s a subject where there can be a lot of debate. In this case, Ward and Isabelle (as well as Aiden) took liberties that many would say crossed a line, and I would agree. But when people are collaborating or when someone edits, improves, or finishes another’s work, the question of who is the “real author” can be tricky.
What interested me more than getting to the correct ethical answer (I’m sure Brian could tell us!), was how, in a literal and figurative way, Ward, Isabelle, and Claire vied for ownership of the Manning family narrative. They were all authors of that story, and whether they inspired, motivated, or enraged one another, their family language was the written word.
What do you hope readers take away from this novel?
I hope that readers’ final take on the characters is in some way changed from their initial impressions. And I hope that it’s a book that readers want to discuss—or even argue about—with other people.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on story about a woman who is gifted a charming New England bookstore. But when she uproots her life to move to a small town to live out her quaint literary fantasy, things are not as idyllic as they seem.
- Publisher: Atria Books (March 14, 2023)
- Length: 352 pages
- ISBN13: 9781982199265
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Raves and Reviews
“Abramson’s clever debut… lands as a thought-provoking meditation on family.” —Publishers Weekly
“In a novel largely about the creation of novels, McMullan Abramson avoids the pitfalls of jargony writing for the in-crowd and instead crafts a universal story about family, dreams, and the stories that linger long after we are gone. Complex characters weigh the benefits of sacrificing their morals to achieve a lasting legacy in this well-told tale.”—Kirkus
"Wry, wise, and propulsive, A Likely Story is punctuated with fragments of a compulsively readable book-within-a-book about a woman determined to steal back the spotlight from a man who has cheated his way to the top."—Belletrist
"A Likely Story expertly unpacks the lives of a famous author, his wife, and their daughter, alternating their narratives with a novel of unknown origin. A smart, keenly-observed look at celebrity, sacrifice, and secrets that is absolutely riveting."—Seira Wilson, Senior Editor of Amazon
“Told as a novel-within-a-novel, A Likely Story is a subtle unfolding of a life led living with a celebrity and the struggle to shine on one’s own merits.” —Authorlink
“A dishy, sophisticated story about an aspiring novelist whose greatest influence (and hindrance) is her own famous father. Moving, enraging, and utterly romantic, A Likely Story is literary gold.” —Courtney Maum, author of The Year of the Horses
“Such a rich, clever story about the pitfalls of loving a celebrity.” —Tracey Lange, New York Times bestselling author of We Are the Brennans
"A Likely Story is a literary page-turner and a thoroughly modern story of family mistakes and redemption that I couldn’t put down." —KJ Dell'Antonia, New York Times bestselling author of The Chicken Sisters
"A standout debut about family, secrets, and the costs of protecting a precious legacy. Abramson skillfully captures the idiosyncrasies of the New York artistic elite and then rips the veil away, revealing characters who are raw, complex, and utterly unforgettable." —Fiona Davis, New York Times bestselling author of The Magnolia Palace
"I loved this sharp, multi-layered tale about the highly combustible relationship between love and ambition. Filled with family secrets, pitch-perfect details, and engagingly complex characters, it kept me hooked from page one." —Alexandra Andrews, author of Who is Maud Dixon
"In Abramson's psychologically rich and engrossing debut, the lives of New York literati are rendered in pitch-perfect, delicious detail, as a hidden manuscript exposes a web of family secrets—and inspires an audacious deception. A Likely Story is a testament to the power of fiction not just to imitate life, but to control it. I couldn't stop reading." —Jonathan Vatner, author of Carnegie Hill and The Bridesmaids Union
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