Good-bye and Amen (Gutcheon)

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Good-bye and Amen
Beth Gutcheon, 2008
256 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780060539085

In Brief  
In a summer cottage on the coast of Maine, an unlikely love was nurtured, a marriage endured, and a family survived. Now it is time for the children of that marriage to make peace with the wounds and the treasures left to them. And to sort out which is which.

Beth Gutcheon's critically acclaimed family saga, Leeway Cottage, was a major achievement: a vivid and moving tale of war and marriage and their consequences that enchanted readers. Good-bye and Amen is the next chapter for the family of Leeway Cottage, the story of what happens when those most powerful people in any family drama, the parents, have left the stage.

The complicated marriage of the gifted Danish pianist Laurus Moss to the provincial American child of privilege Sydney Brant was a mystery to many who knew them, including their three children. Now, Eleanor, Monica, and Jimmy Moss have to decide how to divide or share what Laurus and Sydney have left them without losing one another.

Secure and cheerful Eleanor, the oldest, wants little for herself but much for her children. Monica, the least-loved middle child, brings her youthful scars to the table, as well as the baggage of a difficult marriage to the charismatic Norman, who left a brilliant legal career, though not his ambition, to become an Episcopal priest. Youngest and best-loved Jimmy, who made a train wreck of his young adulthood, has returned after a long period of alienation from the family surprisingly intact, but extremely hard for his sisters to read.

Having lived through childhoods both materially blessed and emotionally difficult, with a father who could seem uninvolved and a mother who loved a good family game of "let's you and him fight," the Mosses have formed strong adult bonds that none of them wants to damage. But it's difficult to divide a beloved summer house three ways and keep it too. They all know what's at stake—in a world of atomized families, a house like Leeway Cottage can be the glue that keeps generations of cousins and grandchildren deeply connected to one another. But knowing it's important doesn't make it easy. (From the publisher.)

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About the Author 

Birth—March 18, 1945
Where—Sewickley, Pennsylvania, USA
Education—B.A., Harvard University
Currently—New York, NY

Beth Gutcheon grew up in western Pennsylvania. She attended the Sewickley Academy, Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut, and Harvard College, where she took an honors B.A. in English literature. She has spent most of her adult life in New York City, except for sojourns in San Francisco and on the coast of Maine.

In 1978, she wrote the narration for a feature-length documentary on the Kirov ballet school, The Children of Theatre Street, which was nominated for an Academy Award, and she has made her living as a full-time storyteller (novels and occasional screenplays) since then. Gutcheon's novels have been translated into 14 languages (if you count the pirated Chinese edition of Still Missing), plus large-print and audio formats. Still Missing was made into a feature film called Without a Trace and was also published in a Reader's Digest Condensed version, which particularly pleased the author's mother. (From the author's website.)

From a 2005 Barnes and Noble interview:

"When my second novel was in manuscript, a subsidiary rights guy at my publisher secretly sent a copy of it to a friend who was working in Hollywood with the producer Stanley Jaffe, who had made Goodbye Columbus, The Bad News Bears, and Kramer v. Kramer, run Paramount Pictures before he was 30, and met the queen of England. My agent had an auction set up for the film rights of Still Missing for the following Friday, with some very heavy-hitter producers and such, which was exciting enough. Two days before the auction, Stanley Jaffe walked into my agent's office in New York and said,

"I want to make a pre-emptive bid for Beth Gutcheon's novel."
"But you haven't read it," says Wendy.
"Nevertheless," says Stanley.
"There's an auction set up. It'll cost a lot to call it off," says Wendy.
"I understand that," says Stanley.
Wendy named a number.
Stanley said, "Done," or words to that effect.

To this day, remembering Wendy's next phone call to me causes me something resembling a heart attack. When, several weeks later, Stanley called and asked me if I had an interest in writing the screenplay of the movie that became Without a Trace, I said, ‘No.' He quite rightly hung up on me.

I then spent twenty minutes in a quiet room wondering what I had done. A man with a shelf full of Oscars, on cozy terms with Lizzie Windsor, had just offered me film school for one, all expenses paid by Twentieth Century Fox. He knew I didn't know how to write screenplays. He wasn't offering to hire me because he wanted to see me fail. Who cares that all I ever wanted to see on my tombstone was ‘She Wrote a Good Book?' The chance to learn something new that was both hard and really interesting was not resistible. I spent the rest of the weekend tracking him from airport to airport until I could get him back on the phone. (This was before we all had cell phones.)

I was sitting in my bleak office on a wet gray day, on which my newly teenaged son had shaved his head and I had just realized I'd lost my American Express card, when the phone rang. "Is this Beth Gutcheon?" asked a voice that made my hair stand on end. I said it was. ‘This is Paul Newman,' said the voice.

It was, too. The fine Italian hand of Stanley Jaffe again, he'd recommended me to work on a script Paul was developing. Paul invited me to dinner to talk about it. My son said, "For heaven's sake, Mother, don't be early and don't be tall." I was both. We did end up writing a script together; it was eventually made for television with Christine Lahti, and fabulous Terry O'Quinn in the Paul Newman part, called The Good Fight."

• I read all the time. My husband claims I take baths instead of showers because I can't figure out how to read in the shower, and he's right.

• I started buying poetry for the first time since college after 9/11, but wasn't reading it until a friend mentioned that she and her husband read poetry in the morning before they have breakfast. She is right — a pot of tea and a quiet table in morning sunlight is exactly the right time for poetry. I read the New York Times Book Review in the bath and on subways because it is light and foldable. I listen to audiobooks through earphones while I take my constitutionals or do housework. I read physical books for a couple of hours every night after everyone else is in bed—usually two books alternately, one novel and one biography or book of letters.

• I have a dog named Daisy Buchanan. She ran for president last fall; her slogan was ‘No Wavering, No Flip-flopping, No pants.' She doesn't know yet that she didn't win, so if you meet her, please don't tell her.

• When I was in high school I invented, by knitting one, a double-wide sweater with two turtlenecks for my brother and his girlfriend. It was called a Tweter and was even manufactured in college colors for a year or two. There was a double-paged color spread in Life magazine of models wearing Tweters and posing with the Jets football team. My proudest moment was the Charles Addams cartoon that ran in The New Yorker that year. It showed a Tweter in a store window, while outside, gazing at it in wonder, was a man with two heads.

When asked what book most influenced her life as a writer, here is her answer:

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Dickens often manages to be both dramatic and funny, while telling a thundering great story, but in Great Expectations, in spite of the unforgettable gargoyles like Miss Havisham and charming Wemmick with his Aged P, it's a very human story about the difference between how things look and how they really are. When Pip recognizes how he has fooled himself, and what he must accept about reality, you see that while Dickens has been amusing you with any number of major and minor melody lines that all seemed to be tripping along by themselves, he has in fact been in perfect control, building up to a major chord, every note right and every instrument contributing at just the right moment. I understood that to make a novel pay off like that, you have to know from the get-go what story you are telling, how it ends, what it means, and exactly what you want the reader to feel and know when it's over. It was the book that made me start thinking like a writer, not just as a passionate reader, about how stories are made. (From Barnes and Noble.)

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Critics Say . . . 
Gutcheon’s gift is for pure storytelling.... Her characters and settngs are alive, sparkling with deft touches of period detail; her narrative voice is knowing and wry, exasperated and affectionate.
New York Newsday

Gutcheon concludes the Moss family saga that began with Leeway Cottage in a disappointing fashion. Laurus and Sydney Brant Moss have died, and it's up to their three children, Eleanor, Monica and Jimmy, to divide up the estate. Naturally, the process exposes old frictions and creates new ones while sparking reminiscences of their lives, notably concerning their difficult relationships with their prickly mother, who hid venom beneath a veneer of social graciousness. The narration is many-voiced; the siblings, their spouses and children, their friends and neighbors, and even the dead contribute to the storytelling. While the points-of-view of the living are maddeningly self-involved, the dead really seem to understand what's going on. The effect is both tragic and mildly amusing, but gradually, it becomes difficult to feel for the characters. Though the novel is beautifully written, the narrative becomes frustrating and claustrophobic repetitive as it wears on.
Publishers Weekly

Sydney and Laurus Moss, whose lives were the subject of Gutcheon's Leeway Cottage, have passed away. When their three adult children gather at their summer home in Dundee, ME, to divide up their parents' possessions, they feel determined not to fight over tea cozies. That they are not actually able to avoid old resentments is no surprise. Fortunately, laughter and new realizations are also afoot. Readers get many viewpoints on the family and its history because more than 50 characters (given their own index in an afterword) offer their first-person input. Spouses, children, stepchildren, and friends of the family are given the chance to speak. This unique, collagelike technique takes some getting used to, but the result is an undeniably rich, no-holds-barred portrait of an American family.
Keddy Ann Outlaw - Library Journal

In her eighth novel Gutcheon returns to the Moss family, protagonists of Leeway Cottage (2005), to explore angst and gentility within a fading New England clan. Once again, she begins with the three Moss siblings sorting through their parents' belongings after Laurus and Sydney Moss have died together in their Maine summer home. Eldest daughter Eleanor lives in Boston with her husband, easygoing investment banker Bobby, and does a lot of volunteer work. Middle sibling Monica is married to Norman, a self-important minister from a questionable Midwestern background who's disliked by the rest of the family. Their younger brother Jimmy, for years a drugged-out party animal, has found success as a computer-game creator and is happily married to California girl Janice. Short segments of narration telling the family's story are delivered by a host of characters, so many that readers will frequently find themselves referring to the biographical notes section in the back. The one narrator missing from those notes is Sydney Moss's long-deceased stepfather, who appears in italics and ruminates, unnecessarily, on the afterlife. The plot evolves fitfully. The division of property and the siblings' subsequent attempt to spend a last summer in Maine together bring to the surface old misunderstandings and disappointments. Who gets to use the boat when? Who gets the front bedroom? Every small issue carries enormous weight, representing lingering resentments unspoken by the siblings and their extended families. Gradually the novel focuses on Monica and Norman's troubled marriage. Since he quit his law practice for the ministry and throughout his rocky career, Monica has loyally stood by him. Unsurprisingly, he turns out to be a cad, or at least deeply troubled. In the end, Jimmy's brotherly act of generosity is Monica's salvation. Unfortunately, she comes across as an easy victim and a snob, while selfish Norman's moral and spiritual confusion is compellingly drawn. A true New England novel, charming but a bit chilly.
Kirkus Reviews

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Book Club Discussion Questions 

1. Every family goes through a passage, one way or another, in which the younger generation becomes the older. What do you think of the way the Moss family handled the division of the spoils? What's the worst story of family inheritance politics you ever heard? What's the best?

2. Eleanor seems to have survived being the child of her parents with the least damage. Do you think that's true, or not? Either way, why? Does birth order have anything to do with it?

3. Why do you think Monica married a man with whom she had such a rocky start? Do you see her role in her marriage as admirable, or something else? Do you think there is a happy marriage in her future?

4. The issue of charisma is important in this novel. Clearly Laurus had it as a performer, so Eleanor, Monica and Jimmy grew up with it. What do you think of the way charisma in themselves and others affects their lives?

5. We all know entirely too many stories of people in positions of moral leadership whose private behavior doesn't match their public claims and roles. What do you think of the way Norman exemplifies this? Do you think these stories all have much in common, or all they all different? Do you think that people like Norman sleep fine at night as long as they don't get caught, or are they privately tortured?

6. Jimmy was a musical prodigy in childhood, and turned his back on his gift. Have you ever known a child prodigy? If yes, how did the prodigy's life work out? Norman too was a child prodigy—what do you think about the way this played out in his life as compared to Jimmy's?

7. The parable of the Prodigal Son is a difficult one for many. Do you think the way people read it has to do with faith? Birth order? Something else? What do you think of Jimmy as a prodigal (and does it have anything to do with his being a prodigy?) Were his parents right or wrong to indulge him as they did?

8. The story is told in the form of an oral history or biography, which is usually a non-fiction form. How do you feel about that form for this novel, and why do you think the author chose it?

9. An interplay of thoughts about spirit, spirits, and ghosts are important in this novel. What do you think of the voice that opens the story ? Who and where is it coming from? Do you believe in ghosts? If so, what are they?

10. Do you think Jimmy did the right thing about Leeway Cottage? Why or why not?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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