A “tense, taut, and thrilling” (Marie Claire) novel about a teenage girl, a predatory teacher, and a school’s complicity from the highly acclaimed, bestselling National Book Award finalist and author of A Short History of Women—“riveting, terrifying, exactly the book for our times” (Ann Patchett).
They were on a lark, three teenaged girls speeding across the greens at night on a “borrowed” golf cart, drunk. The cart crashes and one of the girls lands violently in the rough, killed instantly. The driver, Jo, flees the hometown that has turned against her and enrolls at a prestigious boarding school. Her past weighs on her. She is responsible for the death of her best friend. She has tipped her parents’ rocky marriage into demise. She is ready to begin again, far away from the accident.
“Devastatingly relevant” (Vogue) and “fueled by gorgeous writing” (NPR), His Favorites reveals the interior life of a young woman determined to navigate the treachery in a new world. Told from her perspective many years later, the story coolly describes a series of shattering events and a school that failed to protect her. “Before things turn treacherous, there’s a moment when predation can feel dangerously like kindness…Walbert understands this…His Favorites begs to be read” (Time).
His Favorites This is not a story I’ve told before. No one would believe me. I mean, really believe me. They would get that look and nod. They would ask certain questions that suggested I was somehow culpable or that I was making most of it up out of nothing—just girlish fantasies and daydreams. Hysteria. They would wonder how my actions might have precipitated everything or encouraged everything, especially given why I was at Hawthorne at all. I had a reputation for drama then. I also had an appetite for alcohol and marijuana, as did my parents, although we would have gotten along just fine in our individual clouds of stupor, my parents in the living room and me in my bedroom, until the night I stole and wrecked a golf cart, stoned, with my friends Carly and Stephanie.
Carly and Stephanie were my best friends, Carly a girl from an Italian family who owned mushroom barns in Farmingdale, the stench particularly strong the last weeks of summer, when they opened the doors for some kind of airing out. Carly said her family made a great living in shit, the mushrooms grown and harvested in horse manure, but she could not stand to be anywhere near that smell in late August and so decamped to my house, where we slumped around in my bedroom or on the roof just outside my bedroom window, smoking joints if we had them or listening to the radio or sitting with open tin-foiled record albums beneath our chins, the sun’s rays singeing our faces red.
Stephanie lived in the neighborhood, a development on the other side of town from the mushroom barns called Huntington Acres, though the houses were on quarter acres. Ever since middle school, she and I had walked home together from the school bus, watching television in somebody’s living room or doing homework, heating frozen pretzels in the oven. Huntington Acres bordered the Huntington Country Club golf course; we had belonged since we moved in—something about ownership and membership—so if it was warm enough, Stephanie and I sat by the club swimming pool or used our roll of red tickets to order a frozen Milky Way or French fries from the snack bar.
On that day, Carly and Stephanie and I baked on our roof for most of the afternoon so that our faces were a little tanned, mostly burned—a look we loved and wanted to show off. We spent some time lip-synching in front of my bedroom mirror, my hairbrushes our microphones, Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road full blast, played repeatedly, especially “All the Young Girls Love Alice,” which we didn’t quite understand, or at least I didn’t, but it seemed portent and relevant and about things so far from where I was that the line itself was like a bridge out.
I sang it again and again—“tender young Alice, they say.” Stephanie had stolen something from her parents’ liquor cabinet, vodka or gin, that we mixed with orange juice; someone thinking close to dark that we should dress up and head over to the club, that maybe there were some caddies still around, some of the older boys we knew from high school we would see walking behind the men lugging bags of clubs on their shoulders. Or maybe we should sneak into the garage and take a cart, I said.
For years I had humored my mother on the golf course, learning how to play and sometimes accompanying her and her friends for nine holes, eighteen too boring but nine passable if she would let me drive the cart. I liked to zoom up to my mother’s lie or mine, slamming on the brakes at the last minute, skidding just a little so she believed I would crush her Titleist four or five, the great drive she’d made from the ladies’ tee, the next shot she could almost taste. This would make her laugh. My mother was a woman who liked to laugh.
Suffice it to say I knew my way around the front nine of the Huntington course blindfolded, and also that on Friday nights the keys to the carts were left underneath the cart mats, Saturday mornings exclusively for the men who began to play before the fog burned off the shorn fairways, the grass still wet. You would see them in clusters of threes and fours, shadowy, inky, and hear the whoosh and thwack of their graphite drivers as they hit the ball off the men’s tee, graphite drivers all the rage. For months I had been saving to buy one for my father, picturing him unwrapping the new club on Christmas morning every time I slipped Saturday babysitting money into the wallet I kept in my top drawer, Mother agreeing to add to the fund as long as I paid the bulk.
Graphite drivers, she told me, don’t grow on trees.
I knew about graphite drivers like I knew about golf carts, like I knew that the keys to the carts were left under the mats for all the men early Saturday mornings. For most of my life, I waked Saturdays to the electric sound of those carts zipping past as the men followed their shots. We were just off the third tee, far enough back that it would take a mulligan to land in our backyard but close enough that it happened from time to time—the rustle of a ball through our huge magnolia, Mother saying oh shit from the back patio, where in good weather she sat reading a novel, her coffee in a thick mug, her pack of cigarettes on the wrought-iron table. Mother an early riser too.
Oh shit, she said, calling me quick to look for the poor man’s ball before he considered it lost and zoomed off. One thing my mother hated was a lost ball.
Stephanie was reluctant with this plan, her parents members of the Huntington Club but not members in the way of mine—her parents served on the kinds of committees that considered the long-term health of the various species of trees that grew in what we called the “copse”—the particularly tricky rough bordering the seventh fairway. They diligently explained to the bored other members during monthly meetings the need to increase the dues given the appalling situation regarding the crumbling mortar of the old stone wall that ran the length of Old Stone Wall Road, a situation Mother reported back to me, laughing that Marilyn Farmer then asked with her typical Marilyn Farmer seriousness—wouldn’t that make the old stone wall look like a new stone wall? To which Stephanie’s father, known as the Colonel, cleared his throat and explained how the stonemasons were known for their ability to replicate the antiquarian ways of the original Italian citizens who arrived from distant shores to Farmingdale to work in the gunpowder mills we could still see dotting the banks of our river, the name of which everyone had difficulty pronouncing and so pronounced in varying ways, ironic, since the word was a Native American word that meant crooked tongue.
“He went on,” Mother said. “Endless.”
Stephanie’s mother we called Barbara the Nurse; she worked in the nurse’s office at Farmingdale Elementary and never failed to have licorice or lollipops or Snoopy Band-Aids on hand. That I had over the last year convinced Stephanie to steal their liquor, or to occasionally get high, I considered a personal triumph—as an only child my skills at persuasion honed to such precision that even at fifteen more than one adult advised me to go into law.
But Stephanie was in a mood; she had fought with Barbara the Nurse that afternoon, something about makeup or a forgotten chore—they were those kinds of parents—and given Stephanie’s not-quite-right younger brother, Buddy, she had to be the one to do everything perfectly, not just for the Colonel and Barbara the Nurse but for womankind in general. Her mother the kind of woman who tacked up posters of Eleanor Roosevelt and other feel-good early feminists in the Farmingdale Elementary nurse’s office; whenever you found yourself there with a fever or a stomachache she would launch into some lecture on female accomplishments, as if feeling lousy at school was a failure of character and she had been hired, in a nursing capacity, to buck you up.
So that day Stephanie arrived at our house pissed, a bottle of gin in her knapsack and a look in her eye. That she had begun to so resemble her mother felt a little unnerving, especially when she pulled out the bottle and smiled.
“Sky rockets in flight,” she sang. “Afternoon delight!”
And this is how we got to lip-synching an old Elton John record in my room and the sting of too much time in the sun and somebody’s grand idea we should go to the club and check out the caddies, or maybe, and this was me, I know this was me, steal a cart and take a ride, given how the keys were right there for the taking and we were two members out of three.
“My parents wouldn’t join if you paid them,” Carly said, leaning in toward the mirror to apply her eyeliner in what she called an Egyptian scroll before plastering on the blue eye shadow we had found the weekend before in the 99¢ bin at the head shop in the mall. She looked like an exotic bird, or this is how I remember it, and how later that same eyeliner striped her face in black rivulets as if she were behind bars, the blue eye shadow smeared into bruises.
* * *
Dark, or close to dark, one of those late-summer nights when it seems as if the shadows absorb the heat and thicken at dusk, the oppressive humidity of the Eastern Shore, the reminder that beyond all this Farmingdale was boxed in by swamps and ponds and soybean fields left to fallow.
In my memory, fireflies pop here and there against the trees but the trees do not look like trees, more like imitation trees, black construction paper cutout trees as if the whole landscape is impersonating a better landscape, a perfect landscape. It is a moonless night or a night of a new, absent moon: everything waiting for the beginning of something else—pond fountains full blast against the rising din of crickets and peepers and that late-summer whir I’ve never been able to place, that ominous insect sound at summer’s end, an explosion of noise abruptly extinguished. And within all of it the burst and put-put-put of sprinklers.
Now empty of the players in white shorts and collared shirts, spiked shoes. Empty of anyone’s mother or father. Only sounds of nature and maintenance, dark expanses of expertly mowed grass and hills, sand traps banked against shorn greens with ramrod-straight flags dead in the no breeze and still water. The all of it designed for entrapment.
I drive fast—dodging the sprinklers, hilarious, Carly sitting next to me and Stephanie balancing in back, squatting and holding on to the metal braces for the golf bags, her flip-flops tucked in the well near Carly’s feet. We are flying, ascending the hill on the seventh hole my mother hates given the nasty dogleg, the immediate rough, the way the hill blocks the copse along the too-narrow fairway.
Too often you were fooled into aiming straight with one of your better irons instead of chipping to the crest; too often you watch as the ball soars over the hill, hoping it might drop to where you picture the green to be, land in the hole or right next to the hole, a short putt, the flag pulled away by the caddie or your partner at just the last minute before the ball plunked into the metal canister, hand in glove, slipping in, really, with such grace you couldn’t believe your skill or your luck.
But this will never happen, even for members with handicaps in the single digits. The downward slope of the seventh hole angles such a sharp left, a true dogleg, that the fairway only narrowly banks the thick copse, sycamore and white pine, massive and decades-old trees original to the Huntington estate: some people in town still remember the earlier forests of elm and sugar maple and red oak; the beech that blocked the sun in the woods’ interior, like a black heart bound by the same stone the Italians used to reinforce the old walls from generations before the generations anyone could claim as their own, generations that arrived and imagined this land tamed, beaten into pasture.
The crops died. The people died. The forest grew. The sound the wind, mostly, but on this night silence: a still breeze. We were drunk. School would begin in a few weeks. Tenth grade. We were not yet sixteen. There were fireflies against the black backdrop. This I remember. The entire landscape a stage set. Lights off. No moon. This part I remember. No moon. The bursts of water: laughing. The dead whir of those insects starting then dying then starting again.
Over that hill, the seventh-hole hill, we flew. The trees suddenly there so we flew, we were flying, our weight shifting and our screams, laughing and drunk with it—the heat in our faces from the sun we had all day soaked in—and then that jolt, the jolt of the tilt, the hard left, the sudden tilt, still laughing, Carly screaming my name as if I could do anything but I could not do anything, the cart already tipping as if in slow motion though we were flying, we flew, Stephanie thrown from the back, never clear to me how, so that in my mind’s eye I see her not tumbling but something far more beautiful, as if the hard turn, the sudden shift sent her aloft to fly as she flew into that white pine, a pine so stately, so old and wise, my mother blamed the thing for not having the sense to save a child, save Stephanie, to tilt one way or another so that her trajectory, trajectory not a word I would ever use but one I heard again and again from first the cops and then the judge and then just regular people who thought it best from here on out to repeat the story for me, as if I weren’t there, or as if I needed to be reminded what I had done, because what I had done was kill her. I had killed my best friend.
Had killed, I could tell Master. The pluperfect. Not to be used too often because it will take you out of the story in your flashback, out of the simple past into something too far from it—the distant past, the remembered past, some metaphysical expression of the past I can no longer remember although his point remains—too removed from the scene, he said. A coward’s tense. A dodge from describing what actually happened.
So here is what actually happened, what happens still: the scene on its parallel track to now, to me: linear and constant, never passing into past, never speeding into future. The sound of Carly screaming my name, the cart sprung from the release of our weight, Stephanie’s trajectory such that she didn’t make the dogleg, she hit the rough, she had a bad lie, the worst lie, and always the only light the fireflies brought on by the heat, the only sound Carly’s screaming, Stephanie dead at the base of the white pine, at least that, my mother said, instantaneous, Stephanie’s legs folded in a way that would have hurt, her eyes still open, looking up like maybe she could see where it was she believed she might be going next, like maybe there is such a thing as God and an afterlife, the cart on its side and Carly screaming.
* * *
Farmingdale held fast to its traditions: the Christmas sing-along; the Memorial Day parade with all the old veterans in their woolly, pickled uniforms, medals at breast, driving the fleet of Model T Fords owned by our local Mitchell’s Ford, tossing candy to the children lining Main Street who waved little American flags courtesy of the Friends of the Farmingdale Free Library. The kids dove for the candy like beasts, scrambling for Tootsie Pops and Tootsie Rolls and shoving whatever they could in their pockets. Everyone strained to see the Farmingdale High School marching band bring up the rear, the flag twirlers the biggest crowd pleasers, the way the girls launched those flags in the air and caught them in their gloved hands.
Around the Fourth of July, Farmingdale Christ Church held a barbecue and peach festival, church biddies in aprons that read I’m a Peach! scooping barbecue to all the former Methodists now Episcopalians gathered on the front lawn, sitting on blankets pouring cheap wine into Dixie cups, every year the same joke made to Father Phillips on his rounds—the bottles were water, Father, promise, until suddenly, wine!
The geraniums in the concrete planters along Main bloomed as if it were June in late August, although by October their stems were too rangy for the Autumn Festival, the last of their red petals crushed to a dusty brown ash on the sidewalks. The Town Council funded pumpkins and gourds and hay bales in a unanimous vote, the October Tableaus on Main, as they were then called, matching the banners strung from the lampposts announcing the Autumn Festival: Farmingdale High gymnasium, hayrides and a corn maze and an afternoon crowning of the Autumn Queen, a pretty senior whose photograph appeared in the local paper wearing a one-of-a-kind crown created by the kindergarten class of Farmingdale Elementary, a garland of brittle leaves around her neck.
That year Farmingdale High canceled the Autumn Festival and anyway, the rain. For weeks afterward, it rained, the rain flooding the golf course, overflowing the artificial ponds and farther east, on the Atlantic shore, eroding the banks held by the newly planted beach grass to wash with each tide back into the sea. After so many days of gray weather and mist and fog, the sun all but disappeared behind clouds so thick people forgot to turn off their headlights or porch lights, as if everyone anticipated someone else lost, a road uncharted.
That year my mother, a beautiful woman given to her own foul play, divorced my father and took up with a much younger man, someone she met at a farmers’ market on a trip to Portland. She will move to the West Coast and eventually marry him, adopting and training shelter dogs as service animals, forswearing liquor, pot, and meat in short order.
But I suppose this doesn’t answer the question, does it? It’s not the story you wanted me to tell.
This reading group guide for His Favorites 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.
Taut, propulsive, and devastating, His Favorites reveals the interior life of a young woman determined to navigate the treachery in a new world. Told from her perspective many years later, the story coolly describes a series of shattering events and the system that failed to protect her. Walbert, who brilliantly explored a century of women’s struggles for rights and recognition in her award-winning A Short History of Women, limns the all-too-common violations of vulnerability and aspiration in the lives of young women in this suspenseful short novel.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. How is the epigraph from Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy, “But you may have a past already? The darkest ones come early,” a fitting opening for His Favorites?
2. Jo describes the golf course as “all of it designed for entrapment“ (page 10). What other places and situations in the novel seem built to ensnare? How so?
3. What do you think Jo’s mother is feeling after the accident? And after Jo is accepted at Hawthorne? What drives her choices for herself and for Jo?
4. Many of Jo’s memories of Hawthorne, outside of Master, involve Charlotte P. and Cynthia. What do they each mean to Jo? How do they bookend her experiences at Hawthorne?
5. Discuss the techniques Master uses to groom Jo and manipulate her circumstances at Hawthorne to his advantage. Why is he successful at Hawthorne? Why does no one intervene?
6. Why does Cynthia’s punishment at the train tracks affect Jo so much? Why didn’t she stop it earlier? Why does Lucy tell Jo that “you have to learn the rules” (page 126)? What rules, and whose?
7. Jo makes a friend in the weight room, Alex, who suggests she move off campus to the International House. Do you think she followed his advice? Why is this scene included and what is Alex’s importance to the story?
8. Jo wishes she could “stand in front of Buddy and hear him speak his judgment of me, the truth. I wanted to hear him call me a murderer” (page 132). What would hearing that from Buddy mean to Jo? What is she seeking?
9. On page 88, memory is defined as “another draft of a story”—what is the meaning of this? How is the idea of memory woven throughout the story?
10. Finally, it’s revealed that Jo is telling this story to an investigator. Who did you imagine she might be speaking to throughout the narrative? How did the shifts in perspective and tense affect your reading of Jo’s story?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Read The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, the short story itself or the complete story collection, by Alan Sillitoe. Discuss why it might have meant so much to Cynthia, and to Jo later in life.
2. His Favorites closes with the image of Jo and Stephanie, two young girls climbing a magnolia tree, “inching out on a limb they believe would not dare to break beneath the weight of them” (page 149). What does the tree evoke for the reader? What are some other trees used as metaphors in literature?
Kate Walbert is the author of six previous books of fiction: His Favorites; The Sunken Cathedral;A Short History of Women, a New York Times Book Review ten best books of the year and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Our Kind, a National Book Award finalist; The Gardens of Kyoto; and the story collection Where She Went. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize stories. She lives with her family in New York City.
“His Favorites is exactly the book for our times. That Kate Walbert has managed to write a novel that is riveting, terrifying, and yet always charmingly buoyant, speaks volumes to how well she understands women. If you’re trying to figure out what’s going on, how these things happen, read this book.” —Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth
“The writing is so beautiful and exact—so startling in every sentence—that His Favorites took me way past what I thought I knew. This is a novel that shines with a laser beam, lighting what needs to be lit.” –Joan Silber, award-winning author of Improvement
“The smartest, most brutally true novel I’ve read this year. His Favorites reveals Kate Walbert’s dazzling ability to render the unsayable.” –Carolyn Cooke, author of Daughters of the Revolution
“Of all the lessons gleaned from #MeToo, one stands out as particularly sinister: before things turn treacherous, there’s a moment when predation can feel dangerously like kindness. A young person, not yet aware of his or her power, is made to feel special–and then it’s too late. Kate Walbert understands this… His Favorites begs to be read.” —Lucy Feldman, Time
“A layered, time-bending book that depicts the lingering effects of abuse…there will be no mistaking Walbert for anything but devastatingly relevant.” —Lauren Mechling, Vogue
"Kate Walbert's most powerful novel yet... fueled by gorgeous writing, as well as outrage... heartbreaking and galvanizing." —Heller McAlpin, NPR.org
"At just 150 pages long, His Favorites… is impossible to put down." —Rosa Inocencio Smith, The Atlantic
“A quick and powerful read, with a story both gripping and harrowing…you’ll read this tense, taut, and thrilling novel in the shadow of #MeToo and ache for violated women across the decades.” —Samantha Irby, Marie Claire
"An unflinching addition to the #MeToo conversation.” —Cory Oldweiler, AM New York
"A sharp look at school days that are anything but idyllic...Walbert’s slim, impactful novel, distinguished as all her work is by beautiful writing and a wealth of literary allusions, could not be more timely.” —Booklist
“Taut, powerful…Jo narrates with brutal honesty…Her story, filled with rage and regret and intensified by its searing portrait of self-aware, self-destructive teenage girls, provides a case history in male-female relationships built on an imbalance of power.” —Publishers Weekly, STARRED review
“Rendered in crystalline, matter-of-fact prose relating the narrator’s own emotional numbness and distancing, this self-aware metanovel is well timed for our current political era. Walbert packs a punch.” —Library Journal, STARRED review