From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Deep End of the Ocean, an epic story of courage and devotion that spans three continents and the entire map of the human heart.
Just hours after his wife and her entire family perish in the Christmas Eve tsunami in Brisbane, American expat and former police officer Frank Mercy goes out to join his volunteer rescue unit and pulls a little boy from a submerged car, saving the child’s life with only seconds to spare. In that moment, Frank’s own life is transformed. Not quite knowing why, Frank sidesteps the law, when, instead of turning Ian over to the Red Cross, he takes the boy home to the Midwestern farm where he grew up. Not long into their journey, Frank begins to believe that Ian has an extraordinary, impossible telepathic gift; but his only wish is to protect the deeply frightened child. As Frank struggles to start over, training horses as his father and grandfather did before him, he meets Claudia, a champion equestrian and someone with whom he can share his life—and his fears for Ian. Both of them know that it will be impossible to keep Ian’s gift a secret forever. Already, ominous coincidences have put Frank’s police instincts on high alert, as strangers trespass the quiet life at the family farm.
The fight to keep Ian safe from a sinister group who want him back takes readers from the ravaged shores of Brisbane to the middle of America to a quaint English village. Even as Frank and Claudia dare to hope for new love, it becomes clear that they can never let Ian go, no matter what the cost. A suspenseful novel on a grand scale, Two If by Sea is about the best and worst in people, and the possibility of heroism and even magic in ordinary life.
Two If by Sea ONE SO MANY THINGS happen when people can’t sleep.
It was always hot in Brisbane, but that night was pouty, unsettling. After getting Natalie and her family comfortable in their rooms at the inn, Frank couldn’t rest. His leg plagued him. The toll of oppressive weather on that kind of old injury was no old farmer’s myth. He rambled around, briefly joining Natalie’s brother Brian in the bar on the beach, then painfully mounting the switchbacked decks of wooden stairs that led to a kind of viewing platform just adjacent to the car park, looking out over Bribie Island Beach. Up there, he hoped the signal would be good enough to call home, his home, if home is the place you started. For Frank, that would always be a ramshackle horse farm in south-central Wisconsin—now probably more ramshackle than when he last saw it, three years before. As the brrrrr on the other end began, his pulse quickened. He looked up at the sky and thought of all the calls darting through the sea of radio waves tonight, swift as swallows—dutiful, hopeful, wistful, sad.
“Frank?” His sister, Eden, answered, her voice holiday-bright and holiday-brittle, suddenly next to him across nine thousand miles. He was about to ask her to summon his mother to the phone so they could all talk together when he saw it. Without thinking, and without another word to Edie, he let his phone slip into his jeans pocket.
He could not figure out what it was.
He would never remember it as a wave.
Wave was too mere a word.
Although there were hundreds of photos and pieces of film, some shot just at the moment, near this very spot, Frank could look at these and remain curiously unmoved. But should he close his eyes and let himself return, the sick sweats would sweep down his breastbone, a sluice of molten ice. He would hear again the single dog’s one mournful howl, and feel the heavy apprehension, something like that moment from his days as a uniform cop when a routine traffic stop went completely to shit and a fist came flying in from nowhere, but monumentally worse. So much worse that it routed even imagination. Many years later, Frank would think, this was his first sight of the thing that would sweep away the center of his life in the minutes after midnight, and, by the time the sun rose, send surging into his arms the seed of his life to come.
Just like that. Like some mythical deity with blind eyes that took and gave unquestioned.
He saw the wave as a gleaming dam, built of stainless steel, standing upright in the misty moonlight, fifty feet tall and extending for half a mile in either direction. Then, as it collapsed in place, it was water, surging lustily forward and drowning every building on the beach, including the Murry Sand Castle Inn, where Frank’s pregnant wife and her entire extended family lay asleep. For one breath, Frank saw the inn, its porch strung with merry lanterns, red and gold and green, and in the next breath, he saw everything disappear, every light go out, faster than it was possible to think the words that could describe it.
He shouted, “No!” and stumbled forward to make his way down the high tiers of wooden stairs he had only just ascended.
Hoarse, in the distance, another voice called, “No!” over a cascade of sound—the brittle pop of breaking glass, screams peppering the air like gunshot, and the throaty insistence of the water.
Even as Frank turned, the mud-colored tide was boiling up the stairs and leaping the boardwalk barricade. He plunged forward, trying to wade against it, to find the riser of the wooden steps, but there was nothing; his foot bounced against water; he was soaked to the thigh. Pulling himself up along the top rail of the fence, for he would certainly be able to see something of the inn from there, or at least hear something, he shouted, “Natalie!” There were no voices. No lights except the milky smear from the hotels and office towers far in the distance to his left, like a frill of fallen stars. No sound except the insistent gossip of the water, and he was wet now to his waist. Grateful that he was still at least relatively young and passably fit, Frank hauled himself over the fence. He skip-sprinted across the car park, to their little Morris Mini-Minor. Water was already frothing around the tires. Frank pulled open the door, throwing himself into the seat, fumbling for his keys, quickly gaining the highway.
He stopped again and got out.
He heard a man’s voice cry, “Help! Who’s there . . . ?” and then again the swallowing silence. Floodwater rocked at the verge of the road; now how many feet above sea level? Of the two of them, Natalie was, pound for pound, by far the stronger, fitter, even tougher. Of the two of them, she was also the more intrepid, the more likely to have found some way to outsmart and elude this cliff of tides. They would find each other, and he did her no service by stalling here, forsaking his own life for no purpose. Natalie would have hated him for that. He floored it, racing inland. Miles sloughed away and he felt rather than saw the dark shapes of other cars congealing around him.
At last, there was nowhere to move, and all the cars had to stop and Frank got out and walked.
Others walked, too.
An old man struggled under the weight of a gray-lipped girl. She was perhaps ten or eleven years old and her sweet, lifeless face had closed in a smile, her nose and eyes pouring saltwater tears. Frank saw a young woman wearing just one shoe. She clutched a bundle of wet clothes, among them a child’s small jersey embroidered with cross-stitched Santas. A man Frank’s own age sat sobbing near a great blooming evergreen frangipani. Frank avoided their eyes. He thought he might be able to get to a place where he could think, but he only walked farther. He met people hiking toward him, or saw them sitting in their cars, or standing still by the roadside, their hands like the pendulums of broken clocks. After some time, he came upon a large group gathered around a car whose young driver had removed his outsized speakers from the dash. A basso radio voice intoned, “Now you will hear that the tsunami happened because of climate change, friends. You will hear that it struck our coast because of a tropical storm deep in the Pacific. You will hear that this was a random event. But do you believe that? How can any man believe that it was coincidence that water swept into the Sodom of Brisbane on this very hallowed night? Intelligent people will say that we have failed to take care of our earth. But the Lord God Almighty does not care about the climate. He cares about the climate of our souls! As it says in Matthew, ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.’ And so it has come . . .”
Frank walked around a curve in the road, and the preacher’s voice faded to a series of thumps, like the bass notes of a song from a car passing the open window of Frank’s childhood bedroom on the farm. A pale vein of light lolled on the horizon.
This reading group guide for Two If by Sea includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jacquelyn Mitchard. 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.
A day after losing his wife and unborn child in a tsunami in Australia, American ex-pat Frank Mercy rescues a young boy from the floodwaters. Frank unaccountably decides to return to his family’s horse farm in Wisconsin with the boy.
Frank quickly begins to suspect that the boy—who he’s named Ian—has an extraordinary gift, but Ian has been so traumatized that he is mute. As Frank learns to be a parent to this strange child, he settles back into continuing the work he began in Australia as a trainer of elite show jumping horses. Frank meets Claudia, a young psychiatrist and champion equestrian with Olympic hopes, and she ends up as the perfect rider for Frank’s horse Glory Bee and becomes a companion for Frank. With her, Frank can share his emotional life and his concerns about Ian, as it becomes clear that keeping Ian’s gift a secret is impossible. Someone sinister is looking for Ian.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What if there really were a child with Ian’s gift? What would the people who love such a child owe him? To protect him from those who would use him and let him have an ordinary life? to develop his gifts and learn to share them? What would such a child owe the world? How would you protect someone with abilities like Ian’s? Evaluate Frank’s approach and Julia Madrigal’s.
2. There are many different types of families in Two If by Sea: for example, Tura and Cedric; the Donovan clan; Frank’s family; and Claudia, her sisters, and her widowed father. How does each character draw what he or she needs from their biological family—or the family he or she creates?
3. Jacquelyn Mitchard uses beautiful language to describe the magical relationships that can exist between people and animals, especially horses. Why is it important to the novel that Frank is a horse trainer? What do the horse farms and the community around them add to the novel? How do the relationships with animals add to our understanding of Ian’s abilities and the power and vulnerability that come with them?
4. Were you surprised by Frank’s decision to take Ian? How do you explain this? Can there ever be a time when doing something that is wrong in the eyes of the world be the only right choice?
5. In the aftermath of the tsunami, Frank thinks: “Life was not a statement of choice in the fucking good earth or whatever Cedric had said. Life was as random as a pair of dice with ten sides.” Is Frank right? Or is Cedric? Why or why not? Do you think by the end of the book that Frank would still feel that way?
6. Do you believe that Ian has supernatural powers? Or do you believe that Ian is no more than an especially charismatic little boy? How does your understanding of Ian’s skills change throughout the course of the novel? How does it change when more of the boy’s history is revealed?
7. When Ian talks for the first time at Eden’s wedding, how does that moment function as a turning point? How does it affect Frank? At what points do the words Ian says to Frank cause him to take the next step at every critical point in their relationship?
8. Consider the following passage, as Frank proposes to Claudia: “Love can make people cruel. Love can make people weak. Love doesn’t always stay the same. And sometimes it goes dark, like a star that gets extinguished and just leaves the memory of its light.” Despite its cruelties and pitfalls, why is love worth the trouble? Why does Frank ask Claudia to love him, despite all the challenges he faces?
9. Has Frank fully experienced his grief when he asks Claudia to marry him? Why or why not? When, if ever, does Frank come to terms with his feelings for his dead wife?
10. Two if By Sea considers parenthood from every possible angle and in every possible iteration. Discuss how each character approaches the idea of parenthood. What does the power and responsibility of parenthood mean to Frank? To Claudia? To Hope? To Eden and Marty? Even to Glory Bee? What is Mitchard (who has nine children of her own, both through birth and adoption) asking the reader to consider about the bonds between parents and their children, the bonds of blood and those of choice?
11. What is the significance of the novel’s title?
12. Why are the relationships Ian and Colin forge in Britain ultimately so important? Why does Frank feel safe enough to let the boys out alone?
13. Frank’s mother says about leaving their farm: “It’s as if I’m not leaving home, Frank, it’s leaving me.” There are strong themes of finding a sense of home and family throughout Two If by Sea. Which qualities create a sense of home for each character? What creates a sense of family? Are they same thing? Why or why not?
14. The book starts with Frank seeing the wave “that would sweep away the center of his life in the minutes after midnight, and, by the time the sun rose, send surging into his arms the seed of his life to come.” How did tragedy make way for what would come next in Frank’s life? How did tragedy inform the lives of other characters? If there is a message about human existence behind the author’s insistence in seeing the “next wave,” what is it?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Find a professional horse show near you and attend with your book club. Check out the calendar of events on the United States Equestrian Federation website, www.usef.org/_IFrames/competitions/calendar/calendar.aspx, to locate a competition.
2. Jacquelyn Mitchard is perhaps most famous for her first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, which was the inaugural Oprah Book Club pick and later adapted for a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer. Read her first novel with your book club and compare the themes of family, raising young children, and strong female characters with those in Two If by Sea.
3. According to Frank, “A ‘toasted cheese’ sandwich was his mother’s remedy for anything.” What comfort foods are special to your family? Share a favorite recipe with your book club or bring some favorite comfort food dishes to your next club meeting.
4. Learn more about Jacquelyn Mitchard and her many bestselling novels at www.jacquelynmitchard.com.
A Conversation with Jacquelyn Mitchard
How did you come to write Two If by Sea? What was your inspiration?
So many things start with something you see, but don’t understand—at least, you don’t understand what this eventually will mean to you. I saw a photograph of a Christmas tree underwater in a flood, but all its lights were still bravely burning. And later on, it seemed to me that Ian was like that tree. Life had tried to extinguish him, but he was not only strong, he was magical, and he would survive.
This novel takes us from the far reaches of Australia to a working horse farm in Wisconsin to the picturesque countryside of England. How have your own travels inspired your writing?
Don’t I wish! Like Thoreau, I have traveled much in Concord . . . however, yes, I have been in Australia, specifically in the places where Frank begins his life with Ian, and I lived in Wisconsin (on a farm!) for many years. The countryside of England is one of my favorite places, although I haven’t been there as much as I would like. I do go to Ireland every year to teach, and it’s like heaven on earth. I’m very at home with my moisturizer and leggings in my suitcase.
There is a strong thread of family and creating one’s own family throughout the novel. Why was it important for you to write about this?
My own family was created in many ways—through birth, marriage, and adoption. I was widowed in my late thirties, and I had three little boys, and then adopted a baby girl as a single mother, a girl who’s now a teenager. Two of my daughters were born in Ethiopia. Even more important, the person I consider my little sister isn’t part of my birth family: our relationship simply transcends friendship. Family can be your prison, or it can be your harbor. More important to me than anything else, even writing stories, is creating and keeping an enduring, forgiving, committed family. People who have strong families grow up more confident, I think, no matter how those families came to be. And as far as my story, well, Frank didn’t even know that family was the answer to the question he was asking of life.
Grief and loss are also central themes in the novel, as Frank deals with the loss of Natalie, his unborn child, the Donovans, and Tura and Cedric. What do you want the reader to learn through Frank’s processing of his grief?
One thing that we don’t want to admit (I sure don’t) is that all of us are standing on the trapdoor, and, at some point, no matter how careful or hopeful we are, the trapdoor is going to open. What Frank learns about loss and grief is twofold—that grief is blunt and brutal, but that, if you can bear the good memories, they can help you go forward in life, changed but hopeful. At several places throughout the novel, he asks the blessing of his “brave girl,” his beloved lost wife. Some kinds of grief would be without lesson, for me, and unendurable, such as outliving one of my children. Other kinds of grief, even the death last year of a dear friend my own age, made me cherish life (and cherish her!) even more.
Your descriptions of the strength and beauty of horses and the joy of riding are exuberant and inviting enough to make anyone want to take riding lessons. What role do animals, perhaps horses, play in your own life?
There’s a long and rather colorful history with horses in my own life, starting with the fact that my parents rode and trained horses and met when they were both riding the rodeo—this, although they grew up in Chicago! My parents were involved with some pretty awful, shady characters at the barns where they hung out (I mean criminals, lowlifes) but also some people who were just astonishingly good and loving. I used to own draft horses. In fact, I had a Clydesdale mare named Black Magic who once was a Budweiser wagon puller. As Frank says, horses are big and dumb and scary, but they also are loyal and strong and beautiful . . . and fragile. I think of Glory Bee as being strong and fragile, like Ian.
Raising or adopting young children figures in large ways in several of your books. What does this allow you to explore in your writing?
It allows me to ask the question: Whose life have I ruined by bringing her into my own magical world? Ugh! Really, though, seriously, several of my children were adopted, and several were not; and the thing that I’ve learned as a parent is that a child’s nature is not necessarily predetermined by his sharing your genetic heritage. Parents just like to think that. It gives us the illusion that anything on earth involving a child can be predicted, when, beyond eye color, it absolutely cannot, because all children are space aliens and universes unto themselves.
Ian’s and Colin’s abilities are quite remarkable and open the possibility of there being a supernatural world. Were these abilities inspired by something real, or are they a work of pure imagination?
Ian and Colin have abilities that quite certainly don’t exist in real life. What I wanted to do in the story was to create them in the context of real life, so that not only did the boys seem real, what they do seemed real and even ordinary—as it certainly was ordinary to them. Do I wish that there really was a child who could cause people to do the right thing by asking them to be good? You bet I do. But think about it. To a lot of people, that would be one scary kid. That part is sad.
Who is your favorite character in the novel? Why?
Frank’s mother, Hope, and, yes, Frank, too. Hope, however, is that wonderful combination of a seasoned person who’s calm and settled but also adventurous: she learns to love and tolerate even what she can’t understand. And she’s funny.
Which character was the most challenging for you to write? Why?
It was difficult to create Linnet, who was gifted and charming and also capable of great evil . . . but perhaps not truly evil herself. To write about such a lonely, desperate character—little more than a child herself—in a way that would neither be condemning nor sympathetic was a struggle.
Professional horse jumping and training is a huge part of this novel. What kind of research did you do to be able to accurately depict that world?
I had so many horse whisperers who led me to understand how extraordinary this experience is and why people devote hours of their day and years of their life to its mastery. The only time I ever jumped on a horse was unintentional: I was riding a friend’s horse who suddenly decide to go over a five-rail fence and I jumped—off, for my life! I broke my leg and my thumb, but not my Maui Jim sunglasses! I still have them.
In the end, what do you want readers to take away from reading this book? What did you want readers to learn?
I hope I never write a book that is a story wrapped around a lesson, but I really did want to write a story in which the bleakest losses and fiercest dangers also conferred the possibility of new love and magic, if we could be strong enough to believe in it. There’s real magic in this novel; but I suppose that love, between lovers, friends, family members, is really the strongest magic we’ll ever know this side of heaven.
Have you started on another project already? What’s next?
Oh boy, yes! I’m about halfway finished with my next novel, a ghost story loosely inspired by the legend of the lost Roanoke colony, in which the ghost is a young woman bent on mayhem in the worst degree. It’s so much fun I want to write another one . . . and my editor told me that reading a little slice of it scared the daylights out of her, even though she was sitting in a brightly lit office in the middle of Manhattan.
New York Times bestselling author Jacquelyn Mitchard has written many novels for adults, including Two If by Sea. She has also written young adult novels; children’s books; a memoir, Mother Less Child; and a collection of essays, The Rest of Us: Dispatches from the Mother Ship. Her first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, was the inaugural selection of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, later adapted for a feature film starring and produced by Michelle Pfeiffer. Mitchard is the editor in chief and co-creator of Merit Press and a professor of fiction and creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. She lives on Cape Cod with her husband and their nine children.
“Suspenseful, otherworldly and nearly impossible to put down.”
"Mitchard's latest novel explores the fascinating question of those who have extraordinary gifts, what responsibility comes with those gifts, and where the line of morality falls between those poles. A thoughtful, sweeping read."
– Jodi Picoult, New York Times bestselling author of Leaving Time
"Soulful and emotionally arresting, Two If by Sea is somehow both a startling departure for Jacquelyn Mitchard and the deepest sort of coming home. With the intertwining fates of Frank Mercy and the mysterious, exceptional foundling, Ian, Mitchard masterfully mines the place where catastrophic loss meets near-impossible hope and healing, and where ordinary love and sorrow meet the most extraordinary interventions. This book will open your mind and heart in equal measures."
– Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife
"A day after losing his wife and unborn child in a tsunami in Australia, American Frank Mercy rescues a mysterious young boy from the floodwaters. What happens next offers Mercy the opportunity to heal his new wounds while opening old ones. This sprawling family saga is a lot of things - a finely drawn character study, a transcontinental thriller, a portrait of grief and loss - but, most importantly, it is a very, very good book. Although it brings to mind the work of writers like Gail Godwin and Richard Flanagan, this is the kind of novel that only Jacquelyn Mitchard can write: a literary page-turner that is as propulsive as it resonant, as hard to define as it is to put down."
– Wiley Cash, New York Times bestselling author of A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy
"Jacquelyn Mitchard has done it again. TWO IF BY SEA is a riveting story of loss, love, and redemption, driven by the tension between the worst of us and the best of us. Both supernatural and reality-bound, this tantalizing thriller won’t let you go. Kudos to Mitchard for such an insightful and compelling read.”
– B.A. Shapiro, author of The Art Forger
"With grand landscapes, deep emotions, harrowing adventure, and genuine characters who aren¹t characters at all but people about whom we come to care so very much, Two if by Sea is a powerful blockbuster of the first order. There is magic here, both in terms of the vast story told, and in Ms. Mitchard¹s always-beautiful writing. This is a riveting book, a gift to readers everywhere who want to sink into a novel of history and love and grace and magic."
– Brett Lott, author of Jewel
“A gripping family saga buoyed by hope and second chances…Racing to its conclusion, Mitchard's sweeping prose suspends natural boundaries. She forges a fresh sense of faith despite incredible odds.”
– Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Bestselling author Jacquelyn Mitchard (The Deep End of the Ocean) balances love and loss in her new novel, Two If By Sea. It is a sweet story of one man’s road to recovery and the challenges he faces to protect the people he loves…It’s a universal adventure full of emotion and quite a bit of intrigue.”
– Fort Worth Star-Telegram
"Like all good novels, Two If by Sea works on two levels. There's an exciting adventure story. And beneath that is a meditation on family, loss, and recovery....It's a great story. And powerfully written....a love story that kept me reading long after I should have turned off the lights."
– Jesse Kornbluth, Head Butler
"A troubled protagonist, beset by disaster and malefaction, is touched by magic.”
– Kirkus Reviews
“A gripping new family drama… Mitchard deftly weaves together domestic drama with taut suspense as she builds to a heart-stopping climax…Mitchard explores new territory in this unusual and suspenseful tale.”
"Mitchard’s latest combines elements of science fiction and suspense with a heartfelt meditation on family and grief. … Mitchard’s usual strong characters and emotionally resonant prose are evident.”