Laura & Emma (Greathead)

Laura & Emma 
Kate Greathead, 2018
Simon & Schuster
352 pp.

A tender, witty debut novel about a single mother raising her daughter among the upper crust of New York City society in the late twentieth century from a nine-time Moth StorySLAM champion.

Laura hails from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, born into old money, drifting aimlessly into her early thirties. One weekend in 1981 she meets Jefferson. The two sleep together. He vanishes. And Laura realizes she’s pregnant.

Enter: Emma.

Despite her progressive values, Laura raises Emma by herself in the same blue-blood world of private schools and summer homes she grew up in, buoyed by a host of indelible characters:

  • her eccentric mother, who informs her society friends and Emma herself that she was fathered by a Swedish sperm donor;
  • her brother, whose childhood stutter reappears in the presence of their forbidding father;
  • an exceptionally kind male pediatrician;
  • and her overbearing best friend, whose life has followed the Park Avenue script in every way except for childbearing.

Meanwhile, the apple falls far from the tree with Emma, who begins to question her environment in a way her mother never could.

Told in vignettes that mine the profound from the mundane, with meditations on everything from sex and death to insomnia and the catharsis of crying on the subway, a textured portrait emerges of a woman struggling to understand herself, her daughter, and the changing landscape of New York City in the '80s and '90s.

Laura & Emma is an acutely insightful exploration of class and family warfare from a new author whose offbeat sensibility, understated wit, and stylish prose celebrate the comedy and pathos that make us human. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Kate Greathead is a graduate of Wesleyan University and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Vanity Fair, and on NPR’s Moth Radio Hour. She was a subject in the American version of the British Up documentary series. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the writer Teddy Wayne. Laura & Emma is her first novel. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
[A] sly, charming debut.… Laura and Emma’s struggles are real, and their saga makes for a beguiling, addictive read (Book of the Week).

For a privileged Manhattan daughter who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, raising a child alone is pearl-clutchingly radical in Kate Greathead’s wryly observed, 1980s-set first novel.

A deft exploration of conflict, both class and interfamilial, in 1980s blue-blood New York.
Marie Claire

Kate Greathead’s debut novel gamely takes on class conflict, single motherhood, and the discreet pretension of the 1980s Upper East Side through the story of Laura, a daughter of privilege who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant after a one-night stand.
New York Magazine

If the title of Kate Greathead’s debut evokes a Jane Austen novel, well, it’s fitting for an incisive comedy of manners about class divides and the burdens of being born privileged (Best Books So Far of 2018).

Kate Greathead classes it up with her debut, Laura & Emma.
Vanity Fair

[W]armhearted.… The supporting characters … sparkle with idiosyncrasies.… Greathead is a talented writer of detail, particularly in her evocations of New York life.… This is a thoughtful novel of trying to find oneself despite an assigned place in the world.
Publishers Weekly

This novel makes a seemingly unlikable character sympathetic and interesting to the point that her story becomes unputdownable. Set against the backdrop of the 1980s to mid-1990s, this debut …will appeal to readers of character-driven women’s fiction.
Library Journal

Most impressive are the ways Greathead restrainedly shows her characters stretching at the seams of their own… restraint, and she paints their immense privilege with knowing nuance. Greathead’s smart and original …novel impresses and charms.

Although having a child should by all rights open the windows of Laura's life, it doesn't. Her daughter, on the other hand, turns out to be a totally different sort of person.… This ultimately rather mysterious book …is like a person who speaks so softly that you end up paying very close attention.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. On pages 112 and 113, we get a glimpse of Laura’s dismissive attitude toward sex. How do you think that influences Emma’s burgeoning sexuality throughout the book?

2. Privilege and the awareness of it are a recurring theme in Laura & Emma. At several points, Laura tries to explain what privilege is to Emma (for example, page 100). Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve wanted to explain privilege to children? How does that situation change when they’re part of your family? Did your parents ever have a conversation like this with you?

3. Laura quietly questions her sexuality throughout the book. On page 111, the metaphor describing the mysterious, lurking fisherman taking off—"the wake of his boat unzipping the water like the back of a dress”"—seems to imply a level of desire on Laura’s part. How did you understand Laura’s need—or lack thereof—for intimacy throughout the novel?

4. On page 124, Laura realizes Dr. Brown is offering Emma something "that she hadn’t been offered as a child, and was hence unequipped to provide herself." What do you think Dr. Brown is offering, and does Laura ever discover how to give it to Emma?

5. In the episode Laura has with her brother Nicholas (pages 160–170), she appears jealous and lonely. However, Laura has led a very solitary life for the most part. Why is she suddenly so eager for her brother’s company at this juncture?

6. On pages 197 and 198, there is a brief flashback to one of Laura’s teachers appearing to sexually harass her. In the scene, Bibs is excited that Laura has been invited over to the older male teacher’s house, and "insisted she wear lipstick and carry a comb in her pocketbook." What does this say about Bibs as a mother? Why do you think she let Laura go into this situation? What effect do you think this encounter has on Laura’s impression of men and her feelings toward them? Finally, do you think views of sexual harassment have changed since the late eighties and early nineties?

7. After her death, Laura discovers that Bibs went to group therapy for her depression. On page 183, Laura is momentarily panicking that she has lost Emma, and thinks, "Without Emma there would be no point to anything." What does this say about Laura’s character? Why do you think the author included this?

8. Analyze the first paragraph on page 242 (beginning with "In first grade" and ending with "a shade lighter than what surrounded it"). This paragraph seems like an interruption in the narrative flow. Why do you think the author chose to put it there? How do you interpret it based on the passages before and after?

9. Laura is a very pensive character—constantly evaluating her surroundings and reflecting on them, even if she doesn’t often explore her own thoughts or emotions. On page 164, Emma has a longer reflective moment, similar to ones her mother has had throughout the book. In what ways do you think Emma is like Laura, and in what ways is she drastically different?

10. Woven among the scenes of Laura & Emma are hints of Laura’s possible homosexuality or bisexuality. However, it is never resolved or identified. Why do you think the author chose to do this?

11. The last significant relationship Laura has in the book is with her neighbor, Martin. Why do you think she connects with him (and he to her)?

12. What do you make of the ending? What do you think will happen to Laura? Why did the author choose to end on this note?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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