“A brilliantly written, moving story” (TheWashington Book Review) about the converging lives of a young boy who witnesses a brutal murder, the doctor who tends to him, and an old woman guarding her long-buried past.
It seems like just another night shift for Lucy, an overworked ER physician in Providence, Rhode Island, until six-year-old Ben is brought in as the sole survivor from a crime scene. He’s traumatized and wordless; everything he knows has been taken from him in an afternoon. It’s not clear what he saw or what he remembers.
Lucy, who’s grappling with the demise of her marriage, feels a profound, unexpected connection to the little boy. She wants to help him…but will recovering his memory heal him or damage him further?
Across town, Clare will soon be turning one hundred years old. She has long believed that the secrets she’s been keeping don’t matter to anyone anymore, but a surprising encounter makes her realize that the time has come to tell her story.
As Ben, Lucy, and Clare struggle to confront the events that shattered their lives, something stronger than fate is working to bring them together.
“Schwarz blends a clear-eyed acceptance of life’s pain and cruelties with a hopeful message about the enduring power of love in this rich and memorable novel” (Publishers Weekly). The Possible World spans nearly a century—from the Great Depression through the Vietnam War era and into the present—and “in beautifully crafted prose” (Booklist) captures the complicated ways our pasts shape our identities, and how timeless bonds can triumph over grief. “A bittersweet story full of imagination and nostalgia, loss and redemption…The Possible World will seize readers from the first scene and hold tight until its satisfying conclusion” (Kirkus Reviews).
The Possible World PROLOGUE AFTER THEY KILL ME, THERE is nothing.
Not exactly nothing. There is a kind of blissful lapping quiet like the unmoored state between sleep and beginning to dream. And then after a long time, or after no time at all, the quiet is broken by bits of color, like bright crockery splinters bobbing on a dark current.
A blond woman holds a blue towel wide—for me? Behind her are two small windows, hazy with steam. I am being given a bath. The woman is no one I recognize, and yet I do.
Now a puppy, fuzzed and golden, pushes the warm leather of his snout into my hand before turning to follow some invisible taunting trace across the grass. A shock of delight goes through me; it’s the first time I am seeing a puppy. But how can that be? I had a dog named Bluestone, black as wet paint, who ran away when I was nine.
The world chatters with echo, tastes meltingly familiar yet new on my tongue, voices like remembered song warbled through water. A snow-collared tree in the yard is ghosted by another, its trunk buried up to its fork in white, branches making a stark lace against a different sky.
It’s all like a sweet dream I didn’t expect.
I don’t perceive the before running out of everything until it is nearly done. Leaving only the solid now and an impression, like a tang of distant fragrance being borne away by a determined wind, that there is—or there once was—something more.
This reading group guide for The Possible World includes 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.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The Possible World traces the converging lives of Lucy, Ben, and Clare. Though they are from different walks of life and belong to different generations, what do they have in common? Of the three, whom did you relate to the most?
2. The friendship between Clare and Gloria, Oak Haven’s newest resident, takes some time to blossom. According to Gloria, what she and Clare have in common is a love of reading and possession of most of their marbles. But what other qualities or motives draw the two women together?
3. Why did Clare choose to name herself after St. Clare of Assisi, “the saint who had lived in poverty with God” (p. 185)? Do you agree with Prior Washburn that it is a fitting name, given her circumstances at the time? Does it continue to be a good fit later in her life?
4. Lucy’s life revolves around her job as an emergency room physician. Why do you think she’s so tied to a career that can “swing from a beautiful satisfaction . . . . to a dismal failure” all in one day? How does the aphorism she repeats, that no matter how much you love medicine, it will not love you back, inform her attitude toward work? Do you think the concept applies to other jobs and careers?
5. What draws Clare to Leo after the apple incident and his next visit to Roscommon? Do you think she feels a particular kinship with him or is her sudden longing for him to return a sign of her loneliness?
6. The novel opens with a brutal homicide and yet the search for the murderer is not the focus of the story. Did that surprise you?
7. What do you make of Lucy’s concerted attempts to be “nicer” to Joe? Do you have relationships that require this level of self-regulation? Why do you think Joe “couldn’t do this anymore” despite Lucy’s efforts?
8. What do you imagine Ben is asking Lucy in the final pages of the novel when she answers “so much”? Do you foresee a happy future for them?
9. Revisit the novel’s prologue. Now that you know what becomes of Ben, Lucy, and Clare, can you tell from whose perspective the prologue is written?
10. Do you think Ben is suffering from dissociative identity disorder, as one doctor diagnosed, or has Leo been reincarnated as Ben? Are there other possibilities? What do you think Liese O’Halloran Schwarz wants her readers to think?
11. On page 145, Clare muses, “We leave shadows of ourselves in the places where we change. . . . They won’t die until I do. Or maybe they never will. Maybe the places they inhabit are their own, in a timeless void sealed away from me and from each other, where they go on forever.” Do you think Clare’s shadows die when she does? What other shadow-selves inhabit the pages of the novel?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Many families have been touched in some way by adoption and foster care. Is adoption or foster care in your family history? If so, how did that affect your reading of Leo and Ben’s journey and of their influence on the lives of Clare and Lucy?
2. The hurricane of 1938 changed Clare’s life and also the history of New England forever. Research the hurricane’s effects on Providence and share your findings with the group.
Liese O’Halloran Schwarz, an emergency-medicine doctor, published her first novel Near Canaan while in medical school. Her most recent novel is The Possible World, and she currently lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she is at work on her next book.
"Hauntingly beautiful . . . a bittersweet story full of imagination and nostalgia, loss and redemption . . . will seize readers from the first scene and hold tight until its satisfying conclusion." —Kirkus Reviews
“Schwarz blends beautifully crafted prose with three highly compelling tales into one overarching saga of loss and memory.” —Booklist
“Schwarz blends a clear-eyed acceptance of life’s pain and cruelties with a hopeful message about the enduring power of love in this rich and memorable novel . . . the prose is assured and lyrical, infusing each narrative with sensory and emotional detail.” —Publishers Weekly
“Schwarz weaves three captivating stories into one entertaining story, showing how our pasts shape our present, and how some human bonds can help us overcome our emotional and psychological pain. The Possible World is a brilliantly written moving story about human struggle with identity and loneliness.” —Washington Book Review
“Engrossing . . . Schwarz creates a realistic and compelling story of three characters' intertwined lives that completely immerses the reader in their worlds . . . a captivating and moving story of grief and loss and the power of love.” —Shelf Awareness
“Every now and then I come across a book I wish I’d written. The Possible World is one of those. Liese O’Halloran Schwarz’s book is a gorgeously wrought exploration of who gets to tell the story of our lives, and who gets to inhabit that story with us.” —Jodi Picoult, New York Times bestselling author of Small Great Things
“Set, fittingly, in Providence, The Possible World follows a wide cast blown far off course by their various tragedies. Like her characters, Liese O'Halloran Schwarz is both tough-minded and tenderhearted, showing how fate tears us apart and brings us together. As all Rhode Islanders know, the state motto is Hope.” —Stewart O'Nan, author of Songs for the Missing and Emily, Alone
“The Possible World is a triple threat: a novel that offers up flesh-and-blood characters, a white-knuckle plot, and perfect prose. A quadruple threat if you consider the deep emotional journey, the characters' lives intersecting and diverging in the most surprising ways. Liese O'Halloran Schwarz writes like a dream.” —Diana Spechler, author of Who by Fire and Skinny
“The Possible World is a quietly stunning novel about solitude, redemption and the mysterious threads of human connection that tie us together in ways beyond what is tangible. An unforgettable book.” —Carolyn Parkhurst, author of The Dogs of Babel and Harmony
“Deeply felt, fully imagined, and paced so wonderfully that you hardly notice its tightening grip on your imagination. I read The Possible World obsessively, and will not soon forget Lucy, Leo, and Clare, these three unlikely voyagers, delivered in precise, sharp, graceful, governed, prose. Bravo!” —Richard Bausch, author of Peace and Living in the Weather of the World