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A Memoir About Raising Wonderful Children in an Imperfect World

About The Book

In this compelling companion volume to her acclaimed memoir Home Before Dark, Susan Cheever once again gives readers a revealing look into her famous family, whose secrets and eccentricities parallel their genius and successes. Set against the backdrop of Treetops, the New Hampshire family retreat where the Cheevers still summer, and going back several generations, this powerful remembrance focuses on Susan Cheever's mother's family, and includes portraits of her great-grandfather, Thomas Watson, who invented the telephone with Alexander Graham Bell, and her grandfather Milton Winternitz, a brilliant doctor who built Yale Medical School. And of course there is her beloved and talented father John Cheever, the accomplished author who became one of the most well-known writers of the century, often using his family as material. Perhaps most riveting about Susan Cheever's second biographical masterpiece is its exploration of the lives of the Cheever women. At once a unique family portrait and the tale of every family, Treetops draws us effortlessly into a fascinating yet endearingly familiar world.

Reading Group Guide

Susan Cheever

The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion for Susan Cheever's Treetops. We hope that these ideas will enrich your discussion and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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1. What does "Treetops" refer to physically? Do you think it has a symbolic meaning as well? Why do you think Susan Cheever uses it as a title?
2. What is Mary Cheever's father, Milton Winternitz, like? Do you admire him? Why or why not?
3. Do you see any parallels between Mary's grandfather, father, and the man she chose as a husband? What does Susan Cheever say about this?
4. At the beginning of Chapter 3, Susan Cheever contrasts the men with the women in her family. Do you agree with her assessment?
5. Cheever refers to the women in her family as "strong" yet points out that they choose "tyrants" for their mates and live through their men instead of through their own accomplishments. Can you explain the contradiction?
6. As a poet, what are the themes that Mary Cheever addresses? Why do you suppose she has the focus she does?
7. Polly, Mary Cheever's stepmother, tells her husband that "the right sort of people" wouldn't fight Yale's decision to oust him as head of the medical school. What does she mean? Why would a tough fighter like Winternitz follow her advice?
8. If "the rich are different," in what ways are they different? Use one member of the family to illustrate your point.
9. Discuss Susan Cheever's relationship with her mother. Does it change after her father dies?
10. Susan quotes her brother Ben as saying, "Language is a pistol." Do you think Susan Cheever "shoots" anyone in Treetops?
11. Why do you think Susan Cheever ends the book with her mother at Treetops? Looking closely at all its details, what feelings does this final image leave you with?

Q: Many people on both sides of your family have been creative -- and many have been writers. Do you think creative talent, specifically the need and ability to write, is inherited? Or is more a result of "nurture"?
I don't know if creative talent is a result of nature or "nurture." I can't even begin to answer this question. I don't even know how to separate nature from nurture.
Q: You have written both fiction and nonfiction. Do they feel significantly different when you are writing them? Can you comment on your approach to each genre?
Fiction and nonfiction feel very different to me when I am writing. To write fiction I need a typewriter or a laptop and my imagination. At any moment a novel can come to a screeching halt. I hold my breath when writing fiction, hoping that what I am writing will lead to some kind of conclusion. To write nonfiction I need boxes and boxes of research. Folders accumulate around me. When my imagination flags, I have the facts to go on. In a way it's much easier.
The delicate balance of writing fiction requires that a great deal of imaginative work be done in my head all the time. When I am writing fiction days will go by when I talk to no one. My characters become more real to me than people in my life. A good way to describe this is to say that since my second child was born I have been unable to write fiction. I am too earthbound, grounded by my beloved children, to go to that other planet that fiction requires. When they are older, perhaps I will go back to fiction.
Q: Learning new information and gaining insight into the lives of famous people, such as your father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, enriches our vision and knowledge of the past. Do you think someone who comes to the subject with love and personal attachment can be "objective"? I certainly hope I am not "objective." What could be more boring? If what I write is useful at all it is because it is written entirely from my point of view. I try to write what only I can write. When my story veers off into history, or into areas that other writers have covered, I cut, cut, cut.

Copyright © 1991 by Susan Cheever

About The Author

Michael Falco Photography

Susan Cheever is the bestselling author of thirteen previous books, including five novels and the memoirs Note Found in a Bottle and Home Before Dark. Her work has been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the Boston Globe Winship Medal. She is a Guggenheim Fellow, a member of the Corporation of Yaddo, and a member of the Author's Guild Council. She teaches in the Bennington College M.F.A. program. She lives in New York City with her family.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Washington Square Press (September 1, 2015)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501124655

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Raves and Reviews

The Wall Street Journal Ms. Cheever's...coolly intelligent perspective...provides a clear, hard-edged picture of the snobbery, sexism, anti-Semitism adultery, alcoholism, and emotional dishonesty that were part and parcel of those swimming pools and tennis courts.

The Washington Post Book World Engrossing...moving...Treetops is Susan Cheever's...most satisfyingly realized work to date.

Houston Chronicle This smooth, articulate, inviting book takes us into the lair of a celebrated family. Susan Cheever, with keen observation and incisive character sketches, offers a tantalizingly spare memoir.

Los Angeles Times Treetops may well be Susan Cheever's masterpiece.

New York Daily News Because it's such a fascinating family, it's a fascinating book, but it's not always a pretty story, and one has to admire Susan Cheever's courage in telling it....Her greatest gifts come across in her memoirs....Home Before Dark and Treetops have established her as a very accomplished writer.

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