Ghost at the Table (Berne)

The Ghost at the Table
Suzanne Berne, 2006
Algonquin Books
304 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781565125797

Strikingly different since childhood and leading very dissimilar lives now, sisters Frances and Cynthia have nevertheless managed to remain "devoted"—so long as they stay on opposite coasts. But with the reappearance of their elderly, long-estranged father they find themselves reunited for a cold, snowy Thanksgiving week—a reunion that awakens sleeping tensions and old sorrows.

Frances envisions a happy family holiday with her husband and daughters in her lovely old New England farmhouse. Cynthia, a writer of historical fiction, doesn't understand how Frances can ignore the past their father's presence revives, a past that includes suspicions about their mother's death twenty-five years earlier. Adding to her uneasiness is her research for a book on Mark Twain's daughters, whose lives she thinks eerily mirror her own and Frances's.

As Thanksgiving day arrives, with a houseful of guests looking forward to dinner, the sisters continue to struggle with different versions of their shared past, until a warning issued by Cynthia's friend Carita, that "families are toxic" and "blood is bloody," proves prophetically true.

The Ghost at the Table reveals what happens when one person tries to rewrite another's history and explores the mystery of why families try to stay together even when it may be in their best interests to stay apart. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Washington, D.C., USA
Education—B.A., Weslyan University; Iowa Writers'
Awards—National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship;
   the 1999 Orange Prize 
Currently—lives in Newton, Massachusetts

Suzanne Berne lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with her husband and daughters.

A contributor to the New York Times, she teaches in Harvard University’s English Department. Her first novel, A Crime in the Neighborhood, won Great Britain’s first Orange Prize and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times and the Edgar Allan Poe first fiction awards. Both novels were New York Times Notable Books. (From the publisher and Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
There's almost no forward motion to the novel's plot, but somehow this proxy battle between Cynthia and Frances over their childhood—an effort by each sister to enforce her own version of the past and dismiss the other's memories as irrelevant or skewed—enough to make The Ghost at the Table wholly engaging, the perfect spark for launching a rich conversation around your own table once the dishes have been cleared. Cynthia can be a bitter narrator, and Frances's sepia-toned desire for "a regular old-fashioned family holiday" makes her an easy target, but Berne is not a bitter author, and forgiveness finally comes to these people in the most natural and believable ways. Despite some good shots at the hysteria that infects most of us around the fourth Thursday of November, this is a surprisingly tender story that celebrates the infinite frustrations and joys of these crazy people we're yoked to forever. All in all, something to add to your list of things to be grateful for.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

Intellectually and emotionally stimulating...recalling the world of Joyce Carol Oates or of Anne Tyler, if she were ominous.... Fresh and intriguing.
San Francisco Chronicle

Delicious.... Berne turns a witty tale of holiday dysfunction into a transfixing borderline gothic, her appealing heroine into an unreliable narrator seething with decades-old resentment.
Entertainment Weekly

This taut psychological drama by Orange Prize-winner Berne (A Crime in the Neighborhood) unfolds as San Francisco freelance writer Cynthia Fiske acquiesces to her maternal older sister, Frances, and attends the Thanksgiving family reunion Frances is hosting at her perfectly restored Colonial home in Concord, Mass. Cynthia believes her father, now 82, murdered their invalid mother with an overdose of pills when Cynthia was 13, and she has no wish to ever see him again. Within months after their mother died, their father packed Frances and Cynthia off to boarding school and married the much younger Ilse, a graduate student who worked as part-time tutor to Frances. But now he's suffered a stroke. Ilse is divorcing him, and the family is placing him in a home. Tension is high by the time the assorted guests, including Frances's complicated teenage daughters, her mysterious husband and the speech-impaired patriarch, are called to Frances's table, and it doesn't take much to fan the first flares of anger into the inevitable conflagration. Berne takes an inherently dramatic conflict—one sister's intention to obfuscate the hard truths of the past vs. another's determination to drag them under a spotlight—and ratchets up the stakes with astute observation and narrative cunning.
Publishers Weekly

Sisters, living and dead, loom large in Berne's tale of family secrets unraveled. Cynthia Fiske writes a series of historical fiction for girls, depicting the lives of remarkable women through the eyes of their slightly less-remarkable sisters. An invitation to her own sister's house for Thanksgiving in New England coincides with her need to visit Mark Twain's home in Hartford to research a new novel on the writer's daughters, whose story of a charismatic father and three troubled siblings parallels the Fiskes' history. Complicating the usual holiday tensions is the presence of their elderly father, once brash and manipulative, now disabled and facing a divorce from his much-younger wife. As the family struggles with generations of dysfunction and unspoken secrets, including the mysterious death of their mother decades earlier, Cynthia rebels by sharing the most sordid details of the long-gone Clemens family. Although she is nearing middle age, her feelings of isolation and rejection that began in childhood have left her a perpetual adolescent in relation to her family. Much like the child narrator of Donna Tartt's The Little Friend (Knopf, 2002), Berne portrays a confusing, comic, even sinister family dynamic and eschews a pat, happy ending in favor of a very real, if provocative, choice that will appeal to teen fans of family dramas.
Jenny Gasset - School Library Journal

Past family tensions, antagonisms, and lies threaten to ruin Thanksgiving for the Fiske sisters. Cynthia, the book's narrator, begins by saying that she has no intention of leaving California to attend the dinner in Concord, Massachusetts, planned by her older sister, Frances, in an attempt to reconnect them with their estranged father. Frances, a Martha Stewart-esque perfectionist with an odd husband and perplexing teenage daughters, is determined to reunite the family to clarify a muddled past and restore peace. Cynthia believes that her elderly father, now a stroke victim, was responsible for her mother's death which occurred when Cynthia was thirteen; Frances disagrees. Cynthia writes historical fiction for girls, her specialty being the stories of female writers told by a sibling, and famous writers' lives told by their daughters. Cynthia's next project is a study of Mark Twain as told by his daughters, and the similarity of the Twain family history to that of the Fiskes' provides an intriguing background for the present-day family drama taking place. Berne, winner of the 1999 Orange Prize, shapes her complex characters carefully, deftly revealing ulterior motives, misplaced blame, and inner confusion. This finely wrought psychological mystery is acute in its depictions of family dynamics and aptly reveals the harm of rivalries and secrets. Wonderfully written, this novel should appeal to female high school students who are interested in family dynamics, writers, and sisters. Any student who appreciates fine literature or aspires to write should find it a rewarding read.

Rivaling sisters search for family truths over a Thanksgiving holiday. Frances Fiske longs for harmony and decides to host a blowout dinner to reunite her estranged family. In her quest for unity, Frances packs the house with high-wattage conflict. When three generations of the Fiske family gather, tempers flair and skeletons begin tumbling out of closets. Out of pity and a sense of obligation, Cynthia Fiske flies east from her sequestered life as a writer to join in her sister's feast. Coming home stirs up bitter memories of a lonely childhood for Cynthia. She narrates the story and at first seems to be a reliable source for learning about the Fiskes' dirty little secrets. Cynthia talks of Frances's rocky marriage, Frances's reckless teenage daughters, Frances's Martha Stewart-like obsession with interior-design perfection. Cynthia relays tales of their mother's mysterious death and their father's romantic indiscretions. A maelstrom develops in the days leading up to the big meal. All the combustible energy makes for a great read as Cynthia and Frances battle it out to preserve a particular view of their childhood. Berne (A Crime in the Neighborhood, 1997, etc.) challenges the reader to pick a side. Cynthia's paranoia creeps through her storytelling and Frances's imperious nature furthers the chaos and miscommunications, making it tough to know whom to trust. Sampling from a few genres—mystery, historical fiction, chick lit and psychological thriller—Berne cooks up a literary feast. Her tactile descriptions and enigmatic characters saturate the story and provide a filling repast. The plot can be frustrating at times—it's a struggle to discern past from present and truth from fiction. But this is intentional. Berne prefers questions to answers. This substantial tale of a dysfunctional family reunion promises a holiday, and a read, to remember.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. In the first few pages, Cynthia freely admits that she and Frances have a strained relationship, though she also says that “of all the people in the world I probably love Frances best” (page 1). Now, however, after many years of refusing Frances’s invitations to come visit during the holidays, Cynthia decides to fly back east for Thanksgiving. What do you think changes her mind? Why is it so important to Frances to have Cynthia come to her house for the holiday?

2. In addition to Frances’s family, Arlen, Wen-Yi, the Fareeds,  and Frances’s assistant, Mary Ellen, come to Frances’s house for Thanksgiving. With such a guest list, Jane goes so far as to call it “Thanksgiving at the UN” (page 30). How have all these outsiders to the family come to the table, and what impact do they have on shaping the events of the evening?

3. At the Thanksgiving table, Frances’s daughter Sarah proposes that they take turns describing what they are most proud of having done for someone else (pages 207 – 11). Compare the answers of each sister. Why does Cynthia find Frances’s answer so difficult to hear?

4. The Ghost at the Table opens with a quotation from The Autobiography of Mark Twain, “a person’s memory has no more sense than his conscience.” How does this statement pertain to each sister? To what degree does it explain Cynthia’s and Frances’s different recollections of the past?

5. Both Cynthia and Frances have very different views of their childhood. More specifically, they have opposing accounts of what happened to their mother. Whose voice is more credible, and why? Discuss the possibility that both sisters’ recollections  are accurate.

6. Frances is an interior decorator; Cynthia writes inspiring history books for girls about domestic life. Why do you think they’ve chosen those professions? How do their jobs provide a comment on who they are or aren’t?

7. What role do you think Mrs. Jordan plays in the story?

8. At one point, Cynthia remembers her sister Helen asking their mother what the mother looked like when she was a girl. Instead of listening to her mother’s answer, Cynthia is struck “by an appalling, fascinating thought: What if you looked into the future and didn’t recognize yourself? What if you saw someone else looking back at you instead?” (page 131 – 32). Do you think Cynthia the child would recognize Cynthia the adult? Would your childhood self be able to identify the adult you’ve become?

9. In Cynthia’s mind, Frances’s daughters, Sarah and Jane, roughly correspond with Frances and herself when they were younger. Is Cynthia simply projecting? In what ways does the past continue to influence the characters’ perceptions of the  present?

10. Soon after her mother’s death, Cynthia implies that her father played a hand in it. She then goes on to tell Frances that Frances unknowingly helped him (pages 155 – 57). A few days later, though, she retracts the accusation. Do you think she was being honest or dishonest in either case?

11. The day after Thanksgiving, Frances insists that she and Cynthia visit Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, with their father in tow. When they discover that the Mark Twain House is closed, they proceed to visit the house they grew up in. What do they find at these houses? What are they hoping to find?

12. Who, or what, does the ghost of the title refer to, and why?

13. Who are Sarah and Arlen really discussing when Cynthia overhears them on the baby monitor (page 240)? How do your feelings about Cynthia begin to shift at this point?

14. When Cynthia wakes up after falling asleep alone in the living room, she sees a pillar candle overflowing with wax. As the organ catches fire, she sits silently watching (page 242). Why, at first, does she do nothing to stop it?

15. Although Cynthia and Frances’s father is unable to speak, he makes his presence known in the house. Discuss each sister’s behavior toward him and his reaction to both.

16. What motivates Cynthia to check in on her father when everyone is asleep (pages 287 – 91)? Do you think she should have called Frances when she discovered he was having trouble breathing? Why didn’t she? In the end, how would you describe what happens between Cynthia and her father?

17. Cynthia says, "It has been mostly for Jane’s benefit that I have set down this record of what happened over Thanksgiving” so that “my version of those few days in November will stand as an argument for the unreliability of memory” (page 293). How do you think Jane would respond to this record? Although this is Cynthia’s story, did you find yourself identifying with one sister over the other? Who in the story did you have the most empathy for, and why?
(Questions by publisher.)

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