“Masterly deftness, funny sentence by funny sentence...a moving and intricately braided story of two mothers.”—JONATHAN FRANZEN, The Guardian
This “beguiling, addictive read” (People, Book of the Week) and Belletrist Book Club pick about a blue-blooded single mother raising her daughter in rarefied New York City is a “carefully observed family story [that] rings true to life” (The New York Times Book Review).
Laura hails from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, born into old money, drifting aimlessly into her early thirties. One weekend in 1981 she meets a man. The two sleep together. He vanishes. And Laura realizes she’s pregnant.
“Unputdownable” (Library Journal) and “wryly observed” (Vogue), Laura & Emma follows Laura as she raises Emma in New York City over the next fifteen years. With wit and compassion, Kate Greathead explores the many flaws and quirks that make us human. Laura’s story hosts a cast of effervescent and original characters, including her eccentric mother, who informs her society friends and Emma herself that she was fathered by a Swedish sperm donor; her brother, whose childhood stutter reappears in the presence of their forbidding father; an exceptionally kind male pediatrician; and her overbearing best friend, whose life has followed the Park Avenue script in every way except for childbearing.
“Kate Greathead’s debut novel gamely takes on class conflict, single motherhood, and the discreet pretension of the 1980s Upper East Side” (New York magazine) and is a “layered story about mothers and daughters and identity” (Entertainment Weekly). Told in vignettes whose every “restrained and understated sentence has been polished to glittering brightness” (Vox), Laura & Emma is “an incisive comedy of manners about class divides and the ‘burdens’ of being born privileged” (Esquire) and “a thoughtful novel of trying to find oneself despite an assigned place in the world” (Publishers Weekly).
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This reading group guide for Laura & Emma includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and an author Q&A. 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.
Laura is born into old money on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She lives her life purposefully and practically until a one-night stand with a stranger. In a turn that surprises her entire family, she announces her plans to have the child that she tells them was conceived with the help of a Swedish sperm donor.
Enter Emma, who grows to be Laura’s frank, independent daughter who sometimes craves her mother’s emotional attention, and sometimes despises Laura for her consistent obedience to the unwritten rules of WASP society. In Kate Greathead’s debut novel, she walks you along with Laura and Emma, year by year, as they encounter their own privilege, sexuality, and the death of loved ones in the late eighties and early nineties of New York City. With a cast of characters who pop in to reveal something new about the protagonists, Laura & Emma is a deep story about a mother and daughter—two odd ducks who don’t quite know what to do with each other. As the city’s landscape changes around them with the passing years, so do Laura and Emma, both struggling to settle into the expectations they have of motherhood and daughterhood. Over a decade and a half, we see a nuanced and beautiful rendering of the bittersweet and poignant episodes that populate their life.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. On pages 112 and 113, we get a glimpse of Laura’s dismissive attitude toward sex. How do you think that influences Emma’s burgeoning sexuality throughout the book?
2. Privilege and the awareness of it are a recurring theme in Laura & Emma. At several points, Laura tries to explain what privilege is to Emma (for example, page 100). Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve wanted to explain privilege to children? How does that situation change when they’re part of your family? Did your parents ever have a conversation like this with you?
3. Laura quietly questions her sexuality throughout the book. On page 111, the metaphor describing the mysterious, lurking fisherman taking off—“the wake of his boat unzipping the water like the back of a dress”—seems to imply a level of desire on Laura’s part. How did you understand Laura’s need—or lack thereof—for intimacy throughout the novel?
4. On page 124, Laura realizes Dr. Brown is offering Emma something “that she hadn’t been offered as a child, and was hence unequipped to provide herself.” What do you think Dr. Brown is offering, and does Laura ever discover how to give it to Emma?
5. In the episode Laura has with her brother Nicholas (pages 160–170), she appears jealous and lonely. However, Laura has led a very solitary life for the most part. Why is she suddenly so eager for her brother’s company at this juncture?
6. On pages 197 and 198, there is a brief flashback to one of Laura’s teachers appearing to sexually harass her. In the scene, Bibs is excited that Laura has been invited over to the older male teacher’s house, and “insisted she wear lipstick and carry a comb in her pocketbook.” What does this say about Bibs as a mother? Why do you think she let Laura go into this situation? What effect do you think this encounter has on Laura’s impression of men and her feelings toward them? Finally, do you think views of sexual harassment have changed since the late eighties and early nineties?
7. After her death, Laura discovers that Bibs went to group therapy for her depression. On page 183, Laura is momentarily panicking that she has lost Emma, and thinks, “Without Emma there would be no point to anything.” What does this say about Laura’s character? Why do you think the author included this?
8. Analyze the first paragraph on page 242 (beginning with “In first grade” and ending with “a shade lighter than what surrounded it”). This paragraph seems like an interruption in the narrative flow. Why do you think the author chose to put it there? How do you interpret it based on the passages before and after?
9. Laura is a very pensive character—constantly evaluating her surroundings and reflecting on them, even if she doesn’t often explore her own thoughts or emotions. On page 164, Emma has a longer reflective moment, similar to ones her mother has had throughout the book. In what ways do you think Emma is like Laura, and in what ways is she drastically different?
10. Woven among the scenes of Laura & Emma are hints of Laura’s possible homosexuality or bisexuality. However, it is never resolved or identified. Why do you think the author chose to do this?
11. The last significant relationship Laura has in the book is with her neighbor, Martin. Why do you think she connects with him (and he to her)?
12. What do you make of the ending? What do you think will happen to Laura? Why did the author choose to end on this note?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Author Kate Greathead is a nine-time Moth StorySLAM champion. As a group, listen to her performance of “One Woman’s Trash.” After you listen through her performance, discuss how you think her writing reflects her StorySLAM storytelling. How do they impact each other, and how are they different?
2. The city of New York is almost its own character in Laura & Emma. Before you meet for your book club, have those of you who have visited New York collect their impressions of the city, including the years they were there. If anyone has lived in New York before, have those people wait until the end of the discussion to share their memories of New York. Include a detailed map of the city with the boroughs included, and point out favorite and memorable spots. Compare the impressions between those who have visited the city, lived there, and those who have never been. How do your ideas about the place differ?
3. Laura as a character seems to have difficulties in social interactions, no matter the social class of the people she’s interacting with (for example, the party game scene on pages 104–105). Take a version of the Myers–Briggs test as a group, answering the questions the way you think she would. Read through the final results and discuss whether you think they are accurate or not? Would understanding her personality type and how she relates to others make Laura better off?
A Conversation with Kate Greathead
You write Laura’s character with a bit of sympathy, and a lot of frankness. What inspired her character?
As a reader, I’ve always been interested in protagonists who are not obvious heroes/heroines. The protagonist of Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge was an inspiration—not so much the specifics of her character, but the manner in which she is portrayed. Laura is very different from Mrs. Bridge, but I wanted to depict her with the same tender yet honest scrutiny as Connell did. In life, I’ve always been fascinated by people like Laura. They are not the first ones you notice in a room; there’s a self-conscious reserve and inhibition that holds them back. And yet you can tell there’s a complicated interior life. Laura’s a bit of a wallflower, the daughter and mother of much more charismatic, outwardly colorful individuals, but I think she’s ultimately more interesting. Just because she doesn’t let it all hang out doesn’t mean her bags aren’t packed.
The chronology of the book is almost year by year. Why did you choose to write the story this way?
I wanted to create a portrait of the regular rhythms of life, of time passing.
You’ve done some incredible work for the Moth. How did you get your start with storytelling for an audience?
One of the wonderful things about the Moth is that you don’t need any kind of storytelling experience or credentials; anyone can put his or her name in the hat, and if it gets called, you go up on stage and tell a story in front of hundreds of people. As a shy person who’s terrified of public speaking it seemed like a masochistic thing do to, but one day I took a chance and put in my name. When people describe the adrenalin rush of skydiving, that’s what it felt like the first time I was called to the stage. Live storytelling is a wonderful antidote to the loneliness of writing a novel. Your audience is right before you, and you can experience them laugh and gasp or shake their heads in sympathy. I was instantly hooked.
What was the title of the first piece of fiction you ever wrote and what was it about?
In third grade we were instructed to write our autobiographies. Mine wasn’t straight-up fiction, but I’d say I took some artistic liberties. I remember my teacher criticizing it for being too scene-based. The chapters were supposed to feature significant life milestones (lost a tooth, acquired a sibling), but I was more interested in capturing the essence of everyday life.
New York City plays a huge role in the setting of Laura & Emma. How long have you lived in New York, and what are the changes you’ve seen that you think are good?
I was born in New York City and have lived here for most of my adult life. As someone who pines for the past and hates change, that’s a difficult question. To focus on the positive changes: I admire our current mayor, Bill de Blasio. I’m too scared to ride them, but I like the bike thing. I’ve heard that New York Harbor is a lot cleaner than it used to be and that oysters are making a comeback—that makes me happy.
The theme of privilege surfaces over and over in Laura & Emma. How intentional was this on your part, and how did you do research to write those sections?
Does therapy count as research? A therapist once told me that people are more uncomfortable discussing money than they are sex. Growing up on the Upper East Side, my childhood notion of privilege was skewed. We lived in the building depicted in Laura & Emma, on Ninety-sixth Street, which was a very different street back then. Compared to my classmates, who lived in doorman buildings on Park Avenue, I thought we were poor. This was something I took great pride in. I fancied myself the heroine of a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel—a fantasy that was shattered when I was cast as one of the privileged subjects in Michael Apted’s Age 7 in America, a documentary series that profiles the lives of a group of kids from different parts of America. The thrill of being followed by a film crew was eclipsed by the shame of seeing my life set against other first-graders from much humbler backgrounds. That awareness, at a young age, of my privilege was something that tormented me. It still does. While I didn’t inherit any money, I was born into a life that came with certain advantages, and there’s no denying the role this has played in everything I’ve ever done or achieved—that I have benefited from an unfair system. I wanted to put this psychic “burden” on Laura, and show the ways in which she struggles to reconcile her progressive ideals and the reality of her circumstances.
This is your first novel. How does it feel now that it’s out in the world? Do you think you’ll return to the characters in this book for another novel or short stories?
Writing a novel is a lonely, solitary endeavor, so it’s thrilling and surreal to have it materialize into a book that exists in the world. In the immediate future I’m going to try to work on something else, but I can see myself returning to these characters in the future. I imagine Laura and Emma having a complicated adult relationship that would be interesting to explore.
Which character do you most relate to in the story and why?
I think it’s often the case that writers are inspired to create characters who embody their virtues. For me, I think it’s the opposite; I’m interested in exploring the more unattractive parts of myself. I relate to Laura’s feeling of outsiderness, her timidity, her self-protective judgment of others. I relate to Emma’s neediness and shameless ploys for attention. For years, I was kind of a late-blooming, aimless wanderer, like Martin, a minor character who appears at the end of the book.
What were the hardest parts of writing this story? What parts made you laugh out loud?
I wanted readers to like Laura, but in order to portray her in an honest light, there were scenes where I had to depict her in a way that I suspect would disappoint, irritate, and alienate some readers. The ending was also hard to write. I had my reasons for wanting to leave Laura in the circumstances that I do, but I still felt a little bad about it. Martin made me laugh. He’s on a completely different wavelength from Laura, and his attempts at humor don’t always translate, but this doesn’t stop him from trying to engage with her on his level—an interpersonal dynamic that’s always amused me, on the page and in life.
Kate Greathead is a graduate of Wesleyan University and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Vanity Fair, and on NPR’s Moth Radio Hour. She was a subject in the American version of the British Up documentary series. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the writer Teddy Wayne. Laura & Emma is her first novel.
“Greathead’s debut, which often has the feel of an updated version of Mrs. Bridge…is enlivened by flashes of sardonic humor…[and] the surprising, poignant and beautifully composed final scene...This carefully observed family story rings true to life.”—New York Times Book Review
“[A] sly, charming debut…Laura and Emma’s struggles are real, and their saga makes for a beguiling, addictive read.”—People (Book of the Week)
“For a privileged Manhattan daughter who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, raising a child alone is pearl-clutchingly radical in Kate Greathead’s wryly observed, 1980s-set first novel.” —Vogue
“A deft exploration of conflict, both class and interfamilial, in 1980s blue-blood New York.” —Marie Claire
"Greathead’s smart and original take on the mother-daughter novel impresses and charms.”—Booklist
“Kate Greathead’s debut novel gamely takes on class conflict, single motherhood, and the discreet pretension of the 1980s Upper East Side through the story of Laura, a daughter of privilege who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant after a one-night stand.” —New York Magazine
“[A] warmhearted debut novel...The supporting characters who come in and out of Laura’s life over the years sparkle with idiosyncrasies...Greathead is a talented writer of detail, particularly in her evocations of New York life—subway sobbing, could-be celebrity sightings, the joy of a favorite grocery store...This is a thoughtful novel of trying to find oneself despite an assigned place in the world.”—Publishers Weekly
"Who wouldn't want to get an inside peek into the rarefied world of New York City's elite in the 1980s and 90s? That's exactly what this smart, witty novel offers as it explores the strength of the bonds of family, class, weather, and privilege, leading many of its characters (to say nothing of its readers) wondering just how strong their own constructed identities are, and what it might take to make everything come crashing down."—Nylon
"If the title of Kate Greathead’s debut evokes a Jane Austen novel, well, it’s fitting for an incisive comedy of manners about class divides and the 'burdens' of being born privileged."—Esquire
“Kate Greathead classes it up with her debut, Laura & Emma.” —Vanity Fair
“Each restrained and understated sentence has been polished to glittering brightness… despite this novel’s enormous restraint and despite the surface pleasures of its comedy, Laura &Emma is a profoundly sad book. It’s loneliness in the form of a novel, and beneath its fierce quietness, there’s an ache that never stops.”—Vox
“A layered story about mothers and daughters and identity.”—Entertainment Weekly
“This debut from nine-time Moth StorySLAM winner Kate Greathead gives readers a behind-the-scenes peek at the lavish world of Upper East Side society through a series of vignettes.” —Bustle
“Greathead, a nine-time Moth StorySLAM champion, spins a complex tale of social class and family warfare that follows the quiet struggles of a single mother raising her daughter among the upper crust of New York society.” —The Millions
“Greathead has wrought a tale of subtle beauty more closely akin to the proud and obedient midwesterners of Evan S. Connell’s fiction…Greathead’s power as a prose stylist and storyteller converge to create scenes that will linger with you for days after reading them…The characters in this book live in a world few of us will relate to, but in Greathead’s hands, their humanity is deeply felt.”—ESME
“This novel makes a seemingly unlikable character sympathetic and interesting to the point that her story becomes unputdownable. Set against the backdrop of the 1980s to mid-1990s, this debut by a Moth StorySLAM champion will appeal to readers of character-driven women’s fiction.” —Library Journal
“This ultimately rather mysterious book, with its attenuated plot and restrained humor, is like a person who speaks so softly that you end up paying very close attention.”—Kirkus Reviews
"Few books can grapple with the weighty legacy of Mrs. Bridge and come out standing; this one does. Stylish and understated, with grace notes everywhere, ironic reversals at the ends of sections, and resonant lines of dialogue that quiver with multiple meanings. The tone is arch, contrapuntal, and the anthropology here is brilliant; Greathead is such a keen observer of this world of people laden by the customs of privilege, who struggle to express their feelings, or even have them in the first place, and she finds affect in unexpected corners. Objects return with talismanic power and we track their movements with great appreciation of the artistry involved. It’s devastating to watch these characters sabotage their own and others’ happiness, and Greathead sticks the landing with a remarkably moving ending. —Matthew Thomas, New York Times bestselling author of We Are Not Ourselves
"A big-hearted book, tenderly intelligent and mirthfully incisive in its exploration of family, class, and the difficulty of reconciling our own natures with the way we nurture others. In Greathead's capable hands, Laura & Emma become luminously real, a lens through which the rarefied, often contradictory world of elite New York comes charmingly alive."—Alexandra Kleeman, author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
"I stayed up all night to finish Laura & Emma. Weeks later, I'm still thinking about Laura, still bothered by her troubles, and marveling at how Kate Greathead made these characters and this world so real to me. A brave, unassuming, wonderful first novel."—Rebecca Schiff, author of The Bed Moved
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