BOOK DISCUSSION GUIDE
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,
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.
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
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?
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
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."
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
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
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
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.
with Monica Wood
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.