Gravity of Birds (Guzeman)

The Gravity of Birds 
Tracy Guzeman, 2013
Simon & Schuster
304 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781451689761

How do you find someone who wants to be lost?

Sisters Natalie and Alice Kessler were close, until adolescence wrenched them apart. Natalie is headstrong, manipulative—and beautiful; Alice is a dreamer who loves books and birds.

During their family’s summer holiday at the lake, Alice falls under the thrall of a struggling young painter, Thomas Bayber, in whom she finds a kindred spirit. Natalie, however, remains strangely unmoved, sitting for a family portrait with surprising indifference. But by the end of the summer, three lives are shattered.

Decades later, Bayber, now a reclusive, world-renowned artist, unveils a never-before-seen work, Kessler Sisters—a provocative painting depicting the young Thomas, Natalie, and Alice. Bayber asks Dennis Finch, an art history professor, and Stephen Jameson, an eccentric young art authenticator, to sell the painting for him. That task becomes more complicated when the artist requires that they first locate Natalie and Alice, who seem to have vanished. And Finch finds himself wondering why Thomas is suddenly so intent on resurrecting the past.

In The Gravity of Birds histories and memories refuse to stay buried; in the end only the excavation of the past will enable its survivors to love again. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Tracy Guzeman lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Vestal Review, and Glimmer Train Stories. The Gravity of Birds is her first novel. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
If literary fiction is on the verge of extinction...Tracy Guzeman's The Gravity of Birds ought to inspire new hope for an endangered species. With its deft interweaving of psychological complexity and riveting narrative momentum, with its gorgeous prose and poetic justice, Guzeman's book is about sibling rivalry, tragedies, and resurrections. And it's irresistibly exquisite.
San Francisco Chronicle

The captivating prose of Tracy Guzeman’s first novel instantly pulls you into the lives of the Kessler sisters, Alice and Natalie, and their intertwined love story with Thomas Bayber, an attractive young artist. Forty years later, as Bayber lies dying, he sends two trusted, but disparate, colleagues to find a missing painting that the Kessler sisters possess. Clandestine love affairs, painterly clues and a world of untruths come seamlessly together in this exceptional debut.
Minneapolis Star Tribune

A compelling debut....This book is about details and secrets—and possessing the perceptiveness to notice how details can reveal secrets....Guzeman creates flesh-and-blood characters that readers come to care about.
Cleveland Plain Dealer

In this richly textured novel, two young sisters encounter art and their sensuality under the watchful gaze of a seductive painter. Forty-four years later, when a never-before-seen portrait of them is unveiled, a complex web of jealousy and heartache is exposed.
Oprah Magazine

In this riveting debut novel, a famous artist-recluse unveils a 40-year-old painting never shown before, then sends collectors on a scavenger hunt to locate two teenage girls who posed for him, but disappeared decades ago.
Good Housekeeping

Talented...ncredibly assured...her cast of endearing eccentrics and her stellar prose will win a loyal audience.

When Thomas Bayber...runs into the Kessler sisters during a 1963 summer vacation, he unknowingly seals all their fates.... The narrative shifts to 2007.... [with Bayber] unveiling a portrait....based on that long-ago Kessler sketch.... [It] is part of a triptych: There are two other panels out there somewhere…but where?... At times burdened by overblown prose and the weight of its own ambitions, this novel exhibits, particularly in characterization and dialogue, glimmers of genius.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Reread “No Voyage” by Mary Oliver, the poem that opens the novel. Alice puzzles over this poem at the beginning of the story, trying to understand the “secrets in the lines.” (p. 9) How do you interpret the poem? Now that you have read the novel, think about the poem in the context of the characters and their situations. How would young Alice relate to these verses? How would Alice feel differently about the poem as an older woman?

2. When Alice stops by to see Thomas at his lake house, she decides: “This place was like Thomas…flawed and sad, yet perfectly true.” (p. 19) Look back at a description of each place. How do the various settings throughout the novel reflect the people who occupy them? Are the characters able to leave their pasts behind by relocating? Discuss how settings, particularly homes, preserve memories and emotions.

3. Thomas tells Alice that the job of an artist is “to make people look at things—not just at things, but at people and at places—in a way other than they normally would. To expose what’s hidden below the surface.” (p. 20) How does Thomas achieve this in his paintings of the Kesslers?

4. Alice suffers from rheumatoid arthritis for the majority of her life, and the illness almost becomes its own character with an active role in the story. Other than its obvious role in restricting Alice’s physical abilities, how else does Alice’s illness affect her life as well as the lives of the people around her?

5. The story is told from multiple perspectives: Alice, Finch, and Stephen, but never Natalie or Thomas. Discuss how this narrative style affected your reading experience. What does each person’s point of view contribute to the story? Why do you think the author chose to leave out the voices of Natalie and Thomas?

6. Finch and Stephen are both in the art world, but have contrasting ways of approaching art, even differing in their opinions as to the way art is best viewed: “…people go to museums to see an exhibition someone has told them they have to see. The implication being that unless they see this particular exhibition, and have the appropriate reaction to the work, they have no real appreciation for art.” (p. 173) Discuss whether the environment in which we see art influences our experience of it, and how you feel viewing art in a crowd versus viewing it in a more intimate setting.

7. Natalie and Alice have a strained, sometimes hostile relationship. Yet there are a few moments in the novel when Natalie is truly there for Alice. Explore some of the factors at play in this sibling relationship. Does Alice always deserve the reader’s sympathy? Do you think Natalie deserves Alice’s hatred? (p. 204) Does she deserve the reader’s hatred?

8. Alice is drawn to both Thomas and Phinneaus, two very different men. What does she see in each of them? Discuss how love can take many forms, and consider other instances of love between characters.

9. When Alice discovers her daughter is alive, she contemplates what it means to be a mother: “So she was someone’s mother…But evidently not the sort who would know, instinctively, her own daughter was alive.” (p. 259) What does it mean to be a mother? Do you think Alice is right to identify with Frankie’s mother?

10. Before Alice’s trip to Santa Fe, Agnete was unaware of her true past. Alice assumes that since “Natalie went to see her twice a year…Agnete must have loved her.” (p. 265) Imagine the conversation between Agnete and Alice, when Alice reveals what actually happened. Do you think Agnete tries to justify or excuse Natalie’s actions when she is talking to Stephen? If so, why? Talk about the role of forgiveness in the story.

11. Find descriptions of the Bayber lake house and compare them with Thomas’s rendering in Kessler Sisters. What elements does Thomas include and why? Dennis and Stephen infer things about the relationship between Bayber and the sisters based solely on the painting: “On canvas at least, the sisters seemed to have no connection to each other, circling in separate orbits, whether around their parents or Thomas.” (p. 298) Discuss how Dennis and Stephen interpret both the painting and the small sketch of the Kessler family. How accurate are their speculations?

12. When he needs advice or another opinion, Finch often turns to his “spiritual advisor”—his deceased wife, Claire. Do you think this is a healthy way for him to cope with her death? All of the characters in the novel experience some sort of loss, and each of them deals with it in their own way. How do different characters come to grips with loss in the novel?

13. Why do you think the title of the novel is ? The gallery owner in Santa Fe muses that “people envy them the ability of flight…Maybe not just their ability to fly, but to fly away from, is that it?” (p. 281) Do you agree with him? What do birds symbolize in the book? Find other examples of symbolism in the text.
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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