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BOOK DISCUSSION GUIDE

Title: Any Bitter Thing
Author: Monica Wood

Summary: After a near fatal accident, 30-year old Lizzy examines her life in this story of love, loss, and sacrifice. When her parents are killed in a plane crash, Lizzy, two years old, is sent to live with Uncle Mike, a Catholic priest. She tells of seven wonderful years with her uncle. Unfortunately, a bitter housekeeper falsely accuses Mike of sexually abusing Lizzy and her world crumbles. She is sent to live with relatives and is told that he had died. But how could he have visited her in the hospital? Why did he accept the accusations without a fight? Understanding begins to dawn when Lizzy's accident and rehabilitation dredge up questions of another tragic event, long hidden.

Wood’s layered structure, which moves from present to past to reveal shocking truths, is interspersed with Lizzy's first-person narration and Uncle Mike's third-person perspective, providing insight into what is known and what is remembered.

Questions:
1. How did Lizzie's marriage change as she recovered?

2. How did Father Mike's aversion to being intimate on any level with Vivienne affect the plot?

3. What did Drew really want to do with his photography?

4. Have you ever had the experience of not being able to go forward until you go back?

5. Do you think Mariette and Lizzie remain friends?

6. Who was more manipulative, Vivienne or the housekeeper?

7. Lizzie tells the chancellor it is a "sin to hold on this long to grief." What is your take on that?

8. Do you agree with Father Mike's decision to "die"? Did he have any other options?

9. Lizzie had to get angry with Father Mike before she could forgive him. Why?

10. An inmate says to Father Mike, "I watched your face when you were foolin 'with the host, and I said to myself, Christ, this guy buys the whole works." Does Father Mike ever question his faith?

11. When Lizzie tells her college roommate and her first lover about her past with Father Mike how do they react?

12. Are Father Mike's deep feelings of love for Lizzie normal? Are they like any parents' or are there special circumstances?

Related Information:
A genre of writing called domestic fiction was popular in the 1800's. Its critics took issue with it as being "too limited in scope" and "too sentimental" because it dealt with the unadventurous world of women. Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre are examples.

According to the writer Nina Baym, who described the genre of Women's Fiction, the basic plot is that of a woman who is faced with the necessity of winning her place in the world. At the start she is dependent on others. By the end, the failure of the world to help, awakens the heroine to other possibilities. She develops a strong conviction of self worth. She asks much of herself and can meet her own needs.

I found this story to be short on plotting skills. It reminded me of coming-of-age stories, popular today, like the Poisonwood Bible and The Secret Life of Bees. It is still called domestic fiction because it deals with women and family and everyday occurrences. This seems incredibly sexist.

The book has beautiful language, compelling characters and it also has the muscle of a strong, layered plot. It takes on the largest questions that can be asked about love, faith, grief, betrayal and penance. In this way the book takes on the whole world. Also, during an era when writing tales of clergy abuse have become all too common, Wood shakes up expectations and tells another story.

Wood uses the structure of the Liturgy of the Hours or Breviary to create sections in the book. This Liturgy, part of the Christian Church since earliest times, was also used in various forms in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches. It continued the early Jewish practice of reciting prayers at certain times of the day. Most are opened with the phrases, "Lord, open my lips. And may my mouth praise you." The story weaves back and forth in time, as Lizzie, the main character, states, "Stories. That's all I had. I'd intended to proceed chronologically, to recapture as many lost days as I could, but the story broke down almost instantly, as stories will. On this day, as before, I told things out of order. . . one memory begetting another. . .the narrative resembling not a straight line. . but a circle that hid its beginning and end." p.157.

The novel opens with thirty-something Lizzie Mitchell out for a run after an argument with her husband about his possible infidelity. Lizzie, a teacher, and her husband Drew, a photographer, are drawn as people with inner emptiness, hoping that their marriage would fill. It did not. They are still empty vessels that cannot connect. Lizzie finds that nothing fills her emotionally because of her damaged childhood. After her parents died she goes to live with her uncle Father Mike. He provided real connection, love and caring. But she is plucked from this emotionally generous home at the age of nine and sent to a Catholic boarding school. She never understood why. Could it possibly be her fault? Later, she is told Father Mike is dead. She shuts down and stays that way. Her task in the novel is to find her way back to her childhood and her memories of Father Mike and make peace with them. People keep telling her to just "get over it" and move on, but she is encouraged by a mysterious mystical visitation by Father Mike in the hospital after her accident. He has returned to her in a moment of bright light. She must know more. She wants to relive the days when she felt authentically loved.

Father Mike's character is unusual. It is rare to read about someone so in love with God and the physical beauty of the world. Despite his own laundry list of deaths from his past, he glories in the generosity of God. His life is illuminated by belief. He is a true mystic.

Lizzie recalls her and Father Mike's day-to-day domestic life. He let her eat chocolate pie for breakfast. He sang with Elvis. He let her "act like a baby." He wore dowdy clothes. He smelled like drugstore shaving-lotion. He took her to Six Gun City, a corny theme park in New Hampshire for her fourth birthday. He bathed her childhood self. He loved her.

Wood did an excellent job of portraying how Lizzie's early loss affected her belief in the world and her marriage. Wood echoed the theme of loss of father throughout the novel. Lizzie's real father was dead. Father Mike's father was dead. The Bad Samaritan in essence had abandoned his children. Andrea, Lizzie's student, tells of her father leaving for a young woman. Vivienne's husband abandons the family for long periods of time.

Lizzie starts to heal when she forgives the Bad Samaritan and starts to tell her jumbled tale. She said it felt like "resting." She had the instinct to seek him out because she felt he might understand her. She also wants to know if he also saw the mystical light when he moved her.

Following the twisting plot of Any Bitter Thing is like following a skein of yarn through a labyrinth. You keep thinking you've come to the "original sin" or the Big Bang event that will explain everything. And then you must start again, just in the way that story and memory have no end, but do have revelations.

Wood was first a short story writer, a form that utilizes precise language. She grew up in Mexico, Maine, to a family of devout Irish Catholics, a family of paper mill workers. Her parent's parents came from Prince Edward Island in Canada and brought with them the tradition of storytelling. Her grandfather sang long, dramatic novelistic ballads. Her "obsession" in writing is the notion and influence of the "fIrst family and how they remain with us in ways both damaging and redeeming all our lives. The family that must be both escaped from and returned to over and over again in the family dance".

Is Any Bitter Thing, domestic fiction? Yes, if you go by the description of the main character learning of her self worth and being freed by the knowledge. Yes, and so much more.

Interview with Monica Wood

Podcast with author - scroll to Monica Wood (Maine Writers Speak)

Questions and related information provided by Susannah Risley.

This discussion guide made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency. Sponsored by the Mohawk Valley Library System and participating member libraries.

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