The lives of three very different women intersect in shocking ways in this “outstanding psychological thriller” (Library Journal, starred review), by the New York Times bestselling author of The Bookseller.
In the autumn of 1960, Angie Glass is living an idyllic life in her Wisconsin hometown. At twenty-one, she’s married to handsome, charming Paul, and has just given birth to a baby boy. But one phone call changes her life forever.
When Paul’s niece, Ruby, tells them that her father, Henry, has committed suicide and her mother, Silja, has gone missing, the newlyweds drop everything to be by Ruby’s side in the small upstate town of Stonekill, New York.
Angie thinks they’re coming to the rescue of Paul’s grief-stricken young niece, but seventeen-year-old Ruby, self-possessed and enigmatic, resists Angie’s attempts to nurture her. While taking up residence in Henry and Silja’s eerie, ultra-modern house on the edge of the woods, Angie discovers astonishing truths about the complicated Glass family. As she learns about Henry and Silja’s spiraling relationship, and Ruby’s role in keeping them together, and apart, Angie begins to question the very fabric of her own marriage.
As details of the past unfold and Ruby dissects her parents’ state of affairs, the Glass women realize what they’re capable of when it comes to love, secrets, and ultimate betrayal.
As turbulent and electrified as the period it’s set in, The Glass Forest is an “intoxicating slow burn [that] builds to a conclusion rife with shocking reveals.” (Publishers Weekly)
The Glass Forest 1 Angie Door County, Wisconsin 1960
The day started out clear and crisp—a perfect September morning with no foreboding of what was to come. After PJ woke from his nap, I bundled him into a sweater, stretchy knit pants, and a matching cap—hand-me-downs from my sister Dorrie’s children. Holding the baby against my hip, I stepped outside the cottage. It had rained the night before, and I breathed in the sultry fragrance, familiar as the scent of my own skin, of swollen lake water and sparse Wisconsin woods.
My feet crunched across our sand path over the unpaved road to North Bay; like all residents of North Bay Drive, Paul and I had created a path of sand across the gravel-and-oil road, to curtail oil sticking to our shoes. I made my way down the rickety wooden staircase to the bay, careful of the mud that always stuck to the stair treads after a hard rain. At the bottom, I squelched through the tall, mucky grasses to the edge of the water and with one hand turned over the lightweight canvas canoe my grandfather handcrafted decades ago. Over the weekend, Paul had fashioned a small wooden seat for PJ, padded and reclining, across the canoe’s middle bench. I was eager to try it out.
Humming softly, I fastened the baby with leather straps that Paul had hammered into each side of the bench. I was thinking about the night before. I remembered how rain had pelted the tin roof of the cottage, pounding into my ears as Paul and I rocked together in tangled sheets, our limbs entwined. At the end, I’d cried out Paul’s name, my voice raised above the sound of raindrops lashing against the windowpanes. Afterward we were still, listening to the occasional rumble of thunder as the storm moved eastward over Lake Michigan. Gratitude—for my marriage, my life, my future—wrapped itself around my heart as securely as Paul’s body encircled my own.
Now, twelve hours later, my breath caught at the memory. I paddled onto the bay, which PJ and I had to ourselves, save for a gathering of ducks floating serenely near the shore and a pair of gulls farther out. All the gnats and most of the mosquitoes were gone for the season. Only the occasional dragonfly buzzed over the water, its wings shimmering purple and blue in the sunlight.
I put up the paddle and let the canoe drift. Lulled by the gently rocking craft, PJ babbled cheerfully as he watched birds flying overhead.
I looked up, shielding my eyes from the sun, and as I did, a burst of splashing water erupted to my right. I whipped my head and shoulders around in time to see a trout shooting out of the bay, sending ripples across the surface when it plunged back in.
Pulled off balance by my sudden shift, I felt the canoe tipping sharply. PJ let out a wail. I twisted and saw the baby roll to the side and the top of his head touch the water. His shoulders and torso followed. The leather straps had come loose from the bench—Paul must not have hammered them in securely enough.
I grappled forward and snatched the baby by his ankles just before he went fully underwater. The canoe tilted and I sat down hastily, grinding my hip into the bench as I restored myself upright.
The baby wailed with surprise, his hair soaked, lake water dripping into his eyes and mingling with his tears. I hugged him to my chest and ran my fingers across his drenched head. “It’s okay, my little one,” I murmured. “You’re safe.”
I kissed PJ’s brow, tucking his head against my breast, and with my free hand crossed myself. Thank you, Virgin Mother, I silently prayed. Thank you for watching over us.
The wooden paddle drifted nearby. Shaking, I stared at it. I snuggled the baby under my left arm, dunked my right forearm into the water, and propelled the canoe by hand until I reached the paddle. I retrieved it and tucked the baby more tightly against my body. Awkwardly, one-handed, I paddled toward the shore—graceless but steadfast.
• • •
I was just walking in the door when the telephone began to ring—the two short rings signifying the call coming over the party line was for my household. Still trembling, I slipped off my muddy galoshes. I dashed to the bathroom, wrapped the baby in a towel, and placed him on the davenport.
I crossed the cottage’s diminutive living room and picked up the telephone receiver on the desk, turning down the radio volume with my other hand; I’d neglected to shut off the radio before I went out on the bay. Throughout the morning on WDOR, the announcers had been discussing last night’s presidential debate. They said that while Vice President Nixon came off favorably over the airwaves, those who’d watched the televised version felt Senator Kennedy won by a landslide. The first time I heard those words, earlier that morning, I’d raised my fist in a little cheer. In less than two months, I would be voting in my first presidential election. The senator from Massachusetts had my full support.
“Aunt Angie?” The female voice on the other end of the line was unfamiliar. I have more than a dozen nieces and nephews—I’m the youngest of six, and all my siblings have several children apiece—but only a handful of those children were old enough to make telephone calls. And of those few, none had a mature voice like this. Not quite the intonation of an adult, but surely not a child, either.
Only one person might call me aunt in that type of voice.
“Ruby?” I asked. “Is that you? Are you all right?”
There was no answer. I glanced across the room, watching PJ burble to himself as he swatted the loose threads on a sofa pillow. Considering what he’d been through on the bay, PJ was terrifically calm. How lucky I was to have such an agreeable baby, when all I heard from my sisters and sisters-in-law were gripes about colic and crankiness.
“We got us a winner,” Paul said whenever I marveled at this. “The boy’s a winner, Angel.”
And I would smile, both at his words and his pet name for me. Angel.
There was an almost inaudible sound on the line—not spoken words and not quite the clearing of a throat. I hoped it was Ruby, but I suspected it was old Mrs. Bates from down the road, using the party line to snare gossip like catching a weasel in a baited live trap.
“Ruby?” I said again. “Are you there? Are you all right?”
“No,” Ruby answered in that restrained voice of hers, devoid of emotion and cool as the water in the bay. “No, Aunt Angie, I am not all right.”
There was another pause, and then Ruby said, “Aunt Angie, my father is dead. And my mother has run away.”
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This reading group guide for The Glass Forest includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Cynthia Swanson. 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.
In the autumn of 1960, newlyweds Angie and Paul Glass are enjoying the serenity of their home in Door County, Wisconsin, on Lake Michigan when a phone call changes their lives forever. On the line is their seventeen-year-old niece, Ruby, calling to tell them that her father, Paul’s brother, Henry, is dead and her mother, Silja, has disappeared. Angie and Paul fly to the small town of Stonekill, New York, to be by Ruby’s side. Through Silja’s flashbacks, Angie’s discovery of astonishing truths, and Ruby’s strategic dissection of her parents’ affairs, a story of love, secrets, and ultimate betrayal is revealed.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. What is the significance of the opening scene of The Glass Forest, where baby PJ nearly falls out of the canoe?
2. The Glass Forest takes place in the decades following World War II, a time of major transition for women in the United States. How do the political and cultural shifts influence the female characters in the book? Would you consider them feminists? Why or why not?
3. Why do you think Henry refused to give Silja a divorce? How do you think Henry and Silja’s story would differ if it were set in the modern day?
4. In 1950, Silja considers taking Ruby and running off in secret, hoping Henry won’t try to find them. How might the characters’ lives have unfolded differently if Silja had made that choice at that time?
5. The book contains many descriptions of the Glasses’ home décor, cleanliness, and style. Why do you think the author chose to include these details? What do the descriptions reveal about the characters?
6. Henry becomes obsessed with the need for a family bomb shelter. What drives this obsession? If the story were set in modern times, are there other ways Henry might have attempted to protect his family instead?
7. Discuss the characters’ religions. How do religious traditions influence the actions of Angie, Ruby, and Shepherd? How does religious heritage impact Silja’s, Paul’s, and Henry’s choices?
8. Jean Kellerman tells Angie, “The police won’t investigate based on a reporter’s speculation” (p. 283). Why do you think the police suspect Silja of murdering Henry?
9. What role does Miss Wells play? What does Ruby learn from her teacher? In what ways does Angie learn from Miss Wells?
10. Compare Angie at the beginning of the book to Angie at the end of the book. How does she change, and what inspires the change?
11. Describe Angie and Ruby’s relationship. How does it evolve, and what causes the shift?
12. Describe Ruby and Shepherd’s relationship. How does it differ from Ruby’s relationship with her father?
13. Do you think Ruby made the right decisions regarding her father and uncle? Why or why not?
14. What significance does open water hold for Silja, Angie, and Ruby?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The author paints a descriptive picture of Silja’s life in the Alku. What else can you learn about the Finnish socialists in Brooklyn? What role did they play in shaping New York City? Have your book club members research Finntown and early twentieth-century socialism and share their findings with the group.
2. Many well-known midcentury modern architects designed residences similar to the Glasses’ house. Have your group research MCM architects and find photos of homes similar to the Glasses’. Discuss the pros and cons of living in a “glass house.”
3. The author mentions Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca as inspiration for The Glass Forest. Have your book club members read Rebecca. What parallels to The Glass Forest can you find in Rebecca?
4. Silja meets David at an event where Paul Robeson was scheduled to perform. What can you learn about Robeson and his music? What other artists were Robeson’s contemporaries?
A Conversation with Cynthia Swanson
Your first book, The Bookseller, is also set in post–World War II America. What draws you to this period in American history? Is it challenging to write in a time period different from your own?
It was a period of enormous societal change, and I find those social issues fascinating. Everyday circumstances in midcentury America are unfathomable in the present day. For example, it’s hard to imagine a world in which a woman whose husband wouldn’t grant her a divorce could only become legally free of him if she proved he’d cheated on her. Our current times are also filled with much change, and I think we can look to history to see mistakes we don’t want to repeat.
Beyond that, I absolutely love researching and writing about this time period because of the details: music, clothes, architecture, automobiles. Research has always been one of my favorite parts of writing—I’m constantly learning as I work, which makes the process all the more rewarding.
The book centers on three locations—Door County, Wisconsin; the Alku in Brooklyn; and Westchester County, New York. Why did you choose these locations as the settings for your story? What research did you do to bring these areas to life in The Glass Forest?
Each location has its own purpose. Family friends own a cottage in Door County (which is often described as the “Cape Cod of the Midwest”) and I’ve spent a lot of time there. I needed Angie to be from a small town, and Baileys Harbor fit the bill. I spent my childhood and adolescence in northern Westchester, and my senses and memories of that area are vivid. It was pure luck to stumble across the Alku in my research. I wanted Silja to be Caucasian and a second-generation American growing up in Brooklyn, but not Catholic or Jewish. In trying to determine an ethnicity for her, I came across the socialists in Finntown (now known as Sunset Park) who built the Alku—the first co-op in the United States. Because I didn’t know the area, I contacted a real estate agent who had a listing in the Alku. He was kind enough to give me a tour of the apartment for sale, as well as the entire building. It turned out he’d done extensive research himself on the neighborhood, and he gave me a booklet he’d put together that explained the history of Finntown and each of the co-ops built there in the early twentieth century.
In addition to your writing, you are also an avid designer. How did your passion for design factor into The Glass Forest?
I had a lot of fun designing Silja’s house right along with her. I could picture exactly the type of “dream home” she’d want. I love looking at for-sale postings of midcentury modern homes; I’d take note whenever I ran across one that was something like I imagined Silja’s house to be. In my memory, there were homes like that in Westchester, although I didn’t know anyone who’d lived in one; I personally grew up in a 1920s Tudor, and most of my friends grew up in ranches, split-levels, or old-town Victorians like the Glasses’ house on fictional Lawrence Avenue. Because I didn’t know anyone with a house like Silja’s in that area, I spent a day driving around Westchester, scouting out homes. I found several that looked something like I pictured Silja’s. And the winding roads through the woods were just as I remembered them.
How do you relate to the women in The Glass Forest? Do you see yourself in these characters?
There are elements in each of the women that I relate to. I’m fairly driven but also a romantic at heart, as is Silja. Like Angie, I’m generally optimistic and I’m fiercely loyal to those I love. Ruby has trouble fitting in until she finds the right place for her—an experience I also had as a teen and young adult.
What do you think the future has in store for Angie and Ruby? Do you believe they will remain in touch?
I tend to write stories with closure, and I think this one is no exception. Ruby was compelled to write a letter to Angie—she needed to have her say—and as readers, we need to know that Ruby is going to be okay. Ruby’s and Angie’s lives took very different paths at the end of The Glass Forest—but if not for each other, neither might have survived. I think they appreciate that about each other, but each moves on in her own sphere.
You went to college with the intention of becoming an architect. What made you switch gears and focus on writing?
I was a writer before I discovered my love for architecture. I started writing as a kid and never really stopped. When I was an architecture major, I kept sneaking off to the English department to take creative writing electives. At a certain point, it became clear that I needed to follow my heart. I still love design but I’m happy to call it a side passion.
In interviews you’ve said that you wrote The Bookseller in fifteen-minute increments. Was the writing process for The Glass Forest similar or did your process change for this novel?
When I wrote The Bookseller, I had young kids at home, a freelance writing career, and very little free time. My life is altered now because my children are older and I’m mostly writing fiction. So I have more time to write novels, but now I also need to nurture the other aspects of a novelist’s career—promoting my books, staying active and engaged with readers, meeting with book clubs, and doing other events. My process for The Glass Forest was just as fragmented as it had been with The Bookseller, but the fragments were different. And certainly they were longer than fifteen minutes this time around.
Which authors inspire your own writing? Were there specific books that helped you imagine The Glass Forest?
In the acknowledgements for The Glass Forest, I mention Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, as well as Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. Rebecca, in my view, is the quintessential literary thriller—du Maurier includes all the elements of a page-turning mystery, but with a depth of story and character that not all mysteries achieve. Revolutionary Road is one of those novels that simply stays with me every time I reread it. All the optimism the characters feel is shattered by the reality that they can’t actually have it all. It’s not, by any means, a book with a happy ending. But there’s a quiet strength in sad stories, a strength that we, as readers, don’t always feel when everything gets tied up in a neat, happy bow at the end.
How have writers groups and the literary community helped your writing career?
I’m lucky to live in a city with a thriving literary scene. We have wonderful independent bookstores, a dynamic nonprofit (Lighthouse Writers) that fosters the careers of writers in all genres and at all levels, and many people who are committed to bringing more and bigger book events to Denver. I also belong to a number of online writing groups that are lively and informative—Women’s Fiction Writers Association, Binders, and several local groups. If only they weren’t so distracting! I could chat about writing all day long, but I log off when it’s time to dig in and work.
What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
If you want to be a writer, be a reader first. Read in the genre you write in, but others as well. Learn to read with a critical eye: what did you like, what didn’t you like, and—most important—why? I have a writer friend who reads the ending of a book first, because as she reads the story, she wants to see if the author can plausibly get her from point A to point B. I don’t take it quite that far—I like to let the story unfold as the author intended it—but I do believe it’s crucial for writers to give readers a satisfying experience. Readers are investing their precious free time in words that I wrote. As an author, I never let myself forget that.
Cynthia Swanson is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of The Bookseller. An Indie Next selection and the winner of the 2016 WILLA Award for Historical Fiction, The Bookseller has been translated into a dozen languages. Cynthia has published short fiction in numerous journals and been a Pushcart Prize nominee. She lives with her family in Denver, Colorado. The Glass Forest is her second novel.
The mystery in The Glass Forest is a solid whodunnit, but this novel is so much more. It's both an atmospheric suspense and a gripping multi-generational saga, all infused with the bleak desperation of the post-war era. Brazen and courageous heroines show, with unflinching honesty, the ugly sexism that could fester inside a mid-century marriage. A rich and unforgettable read!
– Kate Moretti, New York Times bestselling author of THE BLACKBIRD SEASON
There is no safe place to turn and no one to trust in Cynthia Swanson’s stirring new thriller, The Glass Forest. Readers will be captivated by this haunting post-war tale of secrets, manipulation, and lost innocence. With a cast of utterly unique and fearless female characters, Swanson turns traditional family relationships upside down to reveal the darkness that lies beneath.
– Lynda Cohen Loigman, author of THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE
The Glass Forest is the story of three strong women in the 1960s, one of whom has disappeared. Part family saga, part mystery, part coming of age, this richly detailed historical novel is both a fascinating portrait of a woman’s life during this time and a meticulously plotted thriller. I absolutely devoured this gripping and beautifully written novel.
– Jillian Cantor, author of MARGOT and THE LOST LETTER
Atmospheric and unsettling, The Glass Forestdepicts, with razor sharp edges, the walls we don't see until we find ourselves trapped within them—and the chilling, emotional panorama of the view from the inside looking out."
– Jessica Strawser, author of ALMOST MISSED YOU
[S]tunning… Swanson uses exquisitely rendered characters and an intricately woven plot to explore the cultural and political fallout of WWII, as well as the changing role and limited rights of women in the mid–20th century. This intoxicating slow burn builds to a conclusion rife with shocking reveals.
– Publishers Weekly, starred review
A haunting novel.
In her follow-up to The Bookseller, Swanson demonstrates her signature trait: a consistent, superbly executed sense of knife-edge disquiet, just bordering on anxiety. She maintains a fast pace without sacrificing literary quality, and multiple characters are developed with unfolding disclosures without losing their individual connections to the reader. VERDICT On the heels of a stunning debut, this outstanding psychological thriller is a triumph. Swanson is a name to be considered among the likes of Gillian Flynn, Chris Pavone, and Laura Lippman.
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