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Death Valley

A Novel

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About The Book

Named a Best Book of 2023 by The New York Times ("incandescent...hilarious...a triumph"), Oprah Daily ("surreal, absurd, lucid, and wise"), Vanity Fair ("Broder [is] a genius and a sorceress"), and more!

From the visionary author of Milk Fed and The Pisces, a darkly funny novel about grief and a “magical tale of survival” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

In Melissa Broder’s astonishingly profound new novel, a woman arrives alone at a Best Western seeking respite from an emptiness that plagues her. She has fled to the California high desert to escape a cloud of sorrow—for both her father in the ICU and a husband whose illness is worsening. What the motel provides, however, is not peace but a path discovered on a nearby hike.

Out along the sun-scorched trail, the narrator encounters a towering cactus whose size and shape mean it should not exist in California. Yet the cactus is there, with a gash through its side that beckons like a familiar door. So she enters it. What awaits her inside this mystical succulent sets her on a journey at once desolate and rich, hilarious, and poignant.

Death Valley is Melissa Broder at her most imaginative, most universal, and finest, and is “a journey unlike any you’ve read before” (Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of Friday Black).

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Death Valley includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

In Death Valley, a woman checks into a Best Western in the California desert. She’s come to solve a problem in her novel, but also to escape a cloud of sorrow around her critically ill father and chronically sick husband. A desert hike leads her to a mystical cactus—and a confrontation with the very things she’s running from. Death Valley is a tender yet quirky portrait of father-daughter love and anticipatory grief, as well as a fabulist tale, a propulsive survival story, and a chronicle of self-discovery.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. On page 1, the narrator’s friend texts her this philosophical quote from Kierkegaard: “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” How does this idea resonate throughout the rest of the book?

2. Discuss the concept of anticipatory grief. How do the narrator, her mother, and her sister cope with the omnipresent knowledge of the father’s critical condition?

3. What is the narrator’s relationship with her father like? Consider the quote: “It is easier to have an intimate relationship with the unconscious than the conscious, the dead than the living. As my father slumbered, I created a fantasy version of him—resurrecting the man from my youth” (page 4). How does this fantasy of her father come to play a role in the novel?

4. What was your reaction when the narrator discovered the giant cactus on the trail? What did you think of the events that transpired within it?

5. On page 15, the narrator explains the Yiddish word kinehora, “a sort-of knock-on-wood that translates to ‘no evil eye.’” Discuss the role of superstition in the novel.

6. Most of the communication in the novel happens over text, email, or video calls while our protagonist is otherwise isolated. How do her communication habits impact her relationships, for better or worse? What does silence or the speed of response communicate in an era of constant connection?

7. Discuss the narrator’s relationship with her husband, who is chronically ill. The two debate the meaning of the words “compassion” and “empathy”; look up their definitions and discuss the difference. Which does she feel for her husband? Her father?

8. In chapter eighteen, Jethra brings up the five love languages when talking about her own father’s passing. What is your love language?

9. Discuss the quote “Being human, always new things to forgive” (page 56). Where do we see forgiveness in the novel?

10. Throughout Death Valley, the protagonist longs to feel less alone and talks to receptionists, anonymous Reddit users, and even rocks. What does she get out of these interactions? Why is it sometimes easier to talk to strangers than the people we love? Do you think the talking rocks are an example of magical realism or a fabrication of our lonely narrator’s imagination?

11. What was your impression of the narrator’s novel-in-progress? Why do you think she is stuck figuring out the “desert section”? Does her own time in the desert lead to some sort of epiphany?

12. At one point while lost, our narrator remarks: “It dawns on me then that I must really want to live. And it surprises me” (page 162). How does a brush with her own mortality influence her outlook on life?

13. Have you ever found yourself in a dangerous situation because you underprepared? How did you handle it?

14. Discuss the quote “If I could define my terror—of life and dying and loving and all of it—if I could say, This is what it is, I would say: It keeps going. It keeps going and also it will end” (page 227). Do you find this thought comforting or terrifying?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Make a playlist of all the songs mentioned in Death Valley for your book club meeting. These songs remind the protagonist of her father—are any of them nostalgic for you?

2. Go on a hike together as a group. Take some Death Valley snacks—blueberry muffins, breakfast cereal, apples, but also plenty of water!

3. Read more of Melissa Broder’s work. Her novel Milk Fed features a complicated relationship between the protagonist and her mother, and her essay collection So Sad Today reveals some of the autobiographical elements of Death Valley. How are these books in conversation with each other?

About The Author

Photograph by Ryan Pfluger

Melissa Broder is the author of the novels Milk Fed, The Pisces, and Death Valley, the essay collection So Sad Today, and five poetry collections, including Superdoom. She has written for The New York TimesElle, and New York magazine’s The Cut. She lives in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @SoSadToday and @MelissaBroder and Instagram @RealMelissaBroder.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (October 3, 2023)
  • Length: 240 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668024843

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Raves and Reviews

“Incandescent . . . ecstatically awake to the world’s astonishments. . . . Death Valley is a triumph, a ribald prayer for sensuality and grace in the face of profound loss, a hilarious revolt against the aggressive godlessness, dehumanization and fear plaguing our time. All ten of Melissa Broder’s finger lamps are blazing. Why not be totally changed into fire?" —Claire Vaye Watkins, The New York Times Book Review

“Melissa Broder, a genius and a sorceress, has once again written the very best book, this one about tragedy and grief and whether or not to take the road less traveled, but also the struggle to write a good novel. It’s spiritual without being full of woo-woo and also extremely funny and you should read it!!” —Samantha Irby, Vanity Fair

"Extremely funny and deeply felt." —People

"One of the best books I’ve read in years: funny, brilliant, gutting, and easily devoured over the course of one blissful afternoon." —Elle

“Sardonic, self-implicating prose that cuts to the bone is Broder’s specialty, and Death Valley is probably the funniest book you’ll ever read about getting lost and almost dying.”—The Cut

"A witty, psychedelic exploration of grief. . . riotously funny." —Guardian

“Her most profound book yet . . . Surreal, hysterical and beguiling in every sense.” —Glamour

“A hilarious and hallucinatory journey into the badlands of California. . . . Like grief itself, this book is at once surreal, absurd, lucid, and wise; it will change you.” —O, The Oprah Magazine, Best Books of 2023

“A surrealist story about anticipatory grief that is as wryly funny as it is moving. Broder curls moments of devastation softly towards moments of the mundane. . . . Broder’s third novel is a propulsive, semi-meta journey of an author balancing the sorrow of a sick husband and a father in the ICU with a looming novel deadline . . . unforgettable.”—NYLON

"Broder takes her absurdist humor to new heights as she spins a surrealist tale of emptiness, exploration and existential crisis in the California desert." —W Magazine, Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2023

“Broder’s own gift is for scenes and dialogue that are so natural—in that they reflect the ridiculousness and surrealism of real life—that they tip over into the uncanny. She is also very funny.” The Los Angeles Times

“A profound look at caregiving and grief, but it also manages to be a very funny, quick, and engaging read. Don’t miss it.“ —theSkimm

“Broder is a comedic writer, a poet averse to stale language and an online personality tirelessly manning a churn of new quips on the familiar subject of sadness.” —Washington Post

“Think the Chronicles of Narnia, but instead of a wardrobe, it's a cactus.” —Cosmopolitan

“Funny, frank and life-affirming.” ?Daily Mail

“Vividly relatable. . . . a psychological portrait of a woman trying to come to terms with the terrifying co-existence of life and death.” —Telegraph (UK)

Death Valley is one of the funniest, most tender stories I’ve read about improbable cacti, dying fathers, and desert survival skills . . . a nuanced and authentic portrayal of grief.” —Locus Magazine

“There is nothing obvious about Broder’s searching, or the tenderness she visits on characters who fail to save those they love from pain and death.” —Annie Liontas, Electric Literature

"Bursting with jokes, abounding with existential crisis, Broder again puts forward her absurdist, provocative philosophy." —Bustle, Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2023

“A riotous victory . . . Broder has illuminated a tale of grief and loss with her characteristic wit and insight. The result is as dazzlingly brilliant as a desert sunset.” —Pop Matters

“Grab a tall glass of water before cracking open this surreal, darkly funny novel. . . . You'll find yourself mesmerized by the story as much as the deeper lessons beneath it.”—Good Housekeeping

“An exhilarating med­itation on death, life, survival and how we rely on stories to get us through it all. It’s a triumph for Broder.” —Book Page (starred review)

"Infectious and dreamy. . . . Broder’s narrator is consistently companionable. . . . Readers ought not to miss this magical tale of survival." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“As wise in its way as any spiritualism about vision quests or finding enlightenment. . . . A 100 percent Broder take on grief and empathy: embodied but cerebral, hilarious but heart-wrenching." —Kirkus Reviews

“A journey unlike any you’ve read before. Death Valley is a beautifully wild leap into the mysterious desert that is grief.” —Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of Chain-Gang All-Stars and Friday Black

"Death Valley is a glorious mirage of a book. This is a mischievous and moving novel of prickly wonders, where the indignities of life are monumental, and the inanimate world only comes alive in the lonely glow of loss. Broder's writing is a brilliant, zany compass, leading us from the sorrow of existence toward the hilarity of someday having to die." —Hilary Leichter, author of Temporary

"Darkly funny and full of exuberant, pitch-perfect sentences, Death Valley is also a glorious departure for Melissa Broder: a heartrending exploration of daughterhood, a deep dive into anticipatory grief, and a hardcore story of survival. Broder's unforgettable new novel is vulnerable, witty, trippy, and conceptually dazzling all at once—a brilliantly inventive book from an absolutely brilliant writer." —Kimberly King Parsons, author of Black Light: Stories

“I’ve never read a novel that portrays grief quite like Death Valley. Melissa Broder captures both the punishing ordinariness of loss while also showing us how extraordinary it is to have been here at all. There is deep wisdom in these pages.” —Mary Beth Keane, author of Ask Again, Yes and The Half Moon

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