Reading Group Guide for Goodbye, Earl
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1) In this story, setting is more than a backdrop. The depiction of Alaska and coastal California, where most of the novel takes place, goes deeper than just creating the mood. These places seem to actively reflect the characters' state of mind and emotional "landscape," so to speak. As such, what significance does Beryl's moving to Alaska have in terms of the larger story? What did Alaska offer her that California did not? What tools does the author use to make the natural landscape such a vibrant part of this novel?
2) How are animals used to the same effect throughout this story? Often, as the lives of these people unfold their relationships with non-human characters reveal much about their personality. Think about Sally with her horse, Thomas Jack with birds, and Beryl with many different kinds of animals. Why is it that animals give us a window into the emotional worlds of these people?
3) Beryl religiously writes in her journal. As such, it is a key in understanding her as a character. At one point, we learn this about her writing: "What she'd written in California wasn't earth shattering, but here in Alaska she was digging down to the bedrock of her life, and it was a stony parcel of land to till." This metaphor not only sheds light on Beryl's relationship with Alaska, but also alludes to the unresolved pain surrounding the rape that she suffered as a teenager. A few pages earlier, that rape, and Beryl's inability to move fully past the memory, is recounted hauntingly. To what extent do you think that experience and her subsequent stay at Saint Margaret's have shaped the person that Beryl is? What kinds of wounds remain?
4) Among other things, her time at Saint Margaret's turns Beryl somewhat sour on religion. The calloused nuns, and to some degree the church itself, come off as bitter and ignorant. But despite many negative depictions (including Phoebe's slightly critical attitude) of the church, some characters seem to take great comfort in religion. Ness, especially, holds Christianity very close to her heart. Were you surprised that women as close as this hold such varied (and sometimes opposing) views on this topic? Although one might not call all of the women in this story religious, do you think they share a common sense of spirituality that binds them together and transcends organized religion?
5) Zoe is an interesting peripheral character, as she really brings out the caregiver in Beryl. When Beryl finds the girl broke and trying to quickly flee her apartment to avoid the landlord, she insists that she come to the nuthatch with her to get on her feet. While Beryl comforts Zoe, she is reminded of her first night on Phoebe's farm and the feelings of permanence and stability that it gave her. Why do you think those memories, long dormant, awaken at that moment? Why is it so important for Beryl to provide comfort for this girl? How might she be healing herself by helping Zoe? Is it simply man trouble that brings these women together, or is there something more?
6) Much is made in this novel of the choices and patterns with which individual characters struggle. Seeing Zoe come to grips with her own failed relationship, Beryl ponders this concept, asking herself, "Was loving a man something she needed to try one last time, just to say she could do it and get it right? Or had her relationship with Earl been, like so many other times before that, just another poor choice?" (229) Do you think any of these characters successfully break free from the patterns that plague them?
7) Early in the novel, Beryl writes in her journal, "I know that in a man's world problems exist to be solved. What if I don't know what the problem is? 'Just let me be sad.'" (5) What might she mean by this? Is there something about the nature of sadness that makes it a worthwhile state -- in and of itself? Does sadness need a reason to exist, or can it just be? It is interesting that she describes this concept in terms of gender: in a "man's world" sadness must be overcome -- it is only a matter of figuring out how one can achieve that. Which outlook seems healthier to you? Is there middle ground, here, between Earl's inability to sit with sadness, and Beryl's reveling in it, which might serve these characters better?
8) In many ways, the real backbone of this novel is the relationships between women. While men float in and out of their lives, taken by tragedy or ordinary circumstance, the one thing that remains, the one constant that these women can rely on, is the love and support that they receive from one another. Talk about the way that this concept is treated in this story. What draws these women together? What keeps them together when times get tough?
9) Along similar lines, what is it about men and women (at least on an emotional level) that makes it so difficult for them to click? Thomas Jack says of Beryl, "She did cry a lot, sometimes even during sex, but she was a natural redhead, so he chalked that up to excess passion. Though, there were times he wished he could push her off button." (163) Why is it that men and women often seem to occupy different emotional places? Could the women of this novel ever be totally fulfilled by their men? Do you think that the level to which they lean on their female friends for support exacerbates this problem? Why is it that most of these characters can't seem to find lasting happiness in their romantic lives?
10) It is interesting that Beryl hides the fact that Earl has left from her friends. Late in the novel, we are given a glimpse of her thinking with the following quote: "But they had all looked at her relationship with Earl as if it were Beryl's gift for having endured so many rotten breaks...she'd had the opportunity to tell them the truth and acknowledge her own human failings, or to push them away and allow them to continue to think that not only was happiness possible for her but for all of them if they just hung in there." (277) Why does Beryl think that Earl's leaving would somehow be emblematic for all of them?
11) At one point, Ness describes her relationship with David as "beyond sex, beyond friends, a kind of love I never dreamed I'd experience." (182) Talk about why Ness found such joy with David, despite the fact that they were not romantically involved. In what ways does this concept -- that love can be strong without sex -- get to the heart of the larger themes in this novel (themes like sisterhood, and the power for friendship)? After David dies, why is the act of fashioning the AIDS quilt so significant for Ness?
12) Where do you see these characters in ten years? If you were the author, and you were to craft a scene somewhere in the future with these folks, what might it look like?
13) Have you read other Bad Girl Creek novels? If so, how did you like the story as continued here? If you have not read any other Jo-Ann Mapson books, how did you find the experience of coming into the story at this point in time? Did you find yourself wanting to go back and read the others? Did you get a strong sense of Sadie's character, despite the fact that she is only present in this novel through memories?