QUESTIONS FOR BOOKGROUPS
If you are meeting as a group to discuss The Goodbye House, the following questions can give you ways to start the conversation. They may also lead you to ways of developing your ideas about the book and about the broader themes the book brings up. But they shouldn’t be seen as limiting discussion. Every reader is an individual, and will bring his or her own personal history and family background to the reading of the book.
- The book’s title evokes both stability and transience. How does the house itself function in a symbolic sense throughout the book? What does Henry Watson’s naming the house “Peaceable Isle” imply about his own feelings about it? What can you say concerning Katherine’s ambiguous feelings about moving back into the house where she grew up? What does Scott feel he’s accomplishing by breaking into it? What does the fate of the house suggest about the overall meaning of the book?
- The book begins with an evocation of the housing suburb in the year 1961, when the landscape of homes was fresh and new, before the main body of the story set in 2003 begins. How does the suburb of 1961 contrast with the suburb of 2003? How do the feelings of the young Katherine toward her father contrast with the feelings of Katherine in 2003? Similarly, how do the feelings that Henry demonstrates toward Katherine contrast with his feelings toward her later in the book? What does it imply that, at the book’s end, Katherine is reflecting back on the very moment depicted in the first pages?
- Much of the action of the novel stems from Scott Cochran’s errors and missteps. Without excusing him for his errors, what are some of his motivations for what he does? Katherine thinks once that, when they both were young, Scott’s notion that something magical would happen for them was enchanting. Scott himself now frequently thinks of himself as a failure. He also thinks of himself as the victim of bad timing, as he feels that the golden opportunity had somehow skipped his generation in Silicon Valley. He seems to sincerely want to restore himself to his place in his family when he returns from his stint aboard ship – why does he go so wrong?
- How would you characterize Katherine Cochran? At the beginning of the book, she is driven by circumstances to move back in with her father. How does her situation in the book contrast with her dreams and aspirations for herself? Does she succeed in moving from simply reacting to what’s happening to her to beginning to create a new life for herself? What do you make of her impulse, at the end of the book, to welcome everyone into the house for an improvised act of reunion?
- Carter Cochran is at an age where he is trying to find a place for himself in the world, while both his family situation and the world at large are changing. How does he navigate the changes that come his way? What does he learn along the way, from his conflicts with other boys at school, from his grandfather, from his drama teacher Nu, from his evolving relationship with Blossom Haven?
- Henry Watson is nearing the end of his life, undergoing palliative care for prostate cancer. At times, he seems not to fit into Silicon Valley – his lunch haven is being torn down for a condo development, and during his visit to a school he is treated like a museum exhibit. Yet what does his presence bring to the book? What perspectives does he offer that would not be otherwise available?
- Shakespeare’s The Tempest is invoked throughout the novel. Though the concentration on the father-daughter part of Shakespeare’s work obviously leaves other aspects of the play aside, how does The Tempest reflect on the events of the novel? How does the attenuated happy ending of the play complement the ending of the novel? What becomes of the brave new world?
- In Heber’s story, there is a contrast between the Salt Lake Valley and Silicon Valley – the former once seen as a sacred “promised land” at the end of an exodus, the latter being a secular promised land for technological innovation. How and why does Heber move from his very confining religious upbringing to California? In what ways has he changed, and in what ways has he remained the same?
- Throughout the book, there are quick glimpses into many lives in the region: the school principal at James D. Phelan Elementary School; Carrie Yamamoto at the winery above Saratoga; Luis Reyes, the Stanford student and waiter at his parents’ Mexican restaurant; the Sikh clerk at the El Rancho motel; Nancy, the reverend at the church that the Watsons sporadically attend; Shirelle, at Darlene’s Blues Bar; Diane, the oncology nurse from New Orleans who likes horse races. What do these quick glimpses add to the book?
- At various points, the book makes clear that the housing tracts are built atop the former fruit orchards that once filled the Santa Clara Valley. The author has written about this time in earlier works, especially The Blossom Festival. Does the knowledge that the landscape of suburban ranch houses is fairly recent, and that it succeeded a previous landscape that had seemed permanent in its time, affect the overall meaning of the novel?
In The Goodbye House, the landscape is so keenly observed, and the emotions so deeply felt, one cannot help but be drawn into this complex family drama. Coates writes with clarity and grace, solidifying his place in the canon of great California literature.—Michelle Richmond
Coates delivers a broad piece of American life—no mere slice here—in a book so warm, funny, and readable that you won’t realize the construction is so complex. Funny, smart, and beautifully fluid—a story you won’t forget.—Lydia Netzer
Lawrence Coates’s wonderful new novel is a deft family drama set against the ever-mutable backdrop of Santa Clara Valley. Told with compassion, stunning human insight, and brilliant flashes of humor, The Goodbye House follows a struggling family whose once golden dreams have faded amid the surrounding jackpot culture of start-ups and dot-coms.
This is a wise, smart, and poignant novel.—Don Waters