This reading group guide for The Last Good Night includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Emily Listfield. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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Emily Listfield begins the novel quite simply: “It was the last good night, really.” And with this cryptic start, she launches the riveting story that introduces us to Laura Barrett, a newscaster struggling with the pressures of a new high-profile job, another mark of achievement in her seemingly perfect trajectory. But her crystalline world starts to fracture when a stranger calls her “Marta.” As the story continues, Listfield connects the bright, successful Laura to the mysterious Marta, a young girl living in a destitute hotel in Florida. Tracing her own story back to Marta’s helps Laura take charge of her life and build her future on her own terms. Questions for Discussion
1. On the second page of the novel, Laura thinks: “I wonder what else will spring out suddenly, unbidden.” What conclusions did you draw from Laura’s enigmatic statement? Where did you think the book was heading?
2. Laura recounts her husband saying, “Nature versus nurture is a joke. Babies come out with their own little agendas. It’s all genetics after all, don’t you think?” How does this line of thinking counter Laura’s? What does this mean for her fivemonth-old daughter? Where do you think the novel ends upon the nature versus nurture question?
3. On one of their first dates, David confesses to Laura: “When I went to college, they asked me the name of my hometown paper in case I did anything particularly notable. The only thing I could think to answer was the New York Times
. . . . Actually, I’m jealous. No one who was born here has nearly as much energy as you infiltrators.” (9) How does the setting of New York City help define Laura as the extreme outsider, or “infiltrator”? Is it a role that she’s used to playing?
4. When describing her makeup artist, Laura says that she “is fascinated by [Penny], by all of them, the girls things came so easily to, the girls who, even when they stumble, do it with an innate confidence that I can only imitate.” Although Laura herself seems to be one of these perfect girls, she admits that it’s only on the surface, an act. What does this tell us about Laura?
5. Chapter 2 is the first time that we meet Jack, when he calls Laura by the name we eventually learn is really hers. Who do you think Jack is at first? Does he seem like an old friend or someone dangerous?
6. “It is not always so simple to tell when something is over, after all—love, for instance, or grievance, is sometimes only hiding no matter how hard you try to convince yourself that it is gone.” (32) When Laura uses this thought to explain Jack, what does it make you think about him? And what is the grievance she’s talking about?
7. When Marta and Jack first meet as teenagers, their eyes meet in the middle of a crowded cafeteria. “[T]hough he was seated in the center of a crowded table, [Jack] seemed separate from his friends.” (142) How do we understand Jack’s personality from this short example? Does the adult Jack prove to be the same or different than the young Jack?
8. When speaking of her relationship with Jack, Laura says: “There were none of the feints and parries of dating. We understood from the very beginning that the first and only thing that had ever really made sense was each other. Why should we pretend otherwise?” (161) Discuss the relationship between Jack and Marta. How does this compare with Laura’s relationship with David?
9. On page 187, when she sees “Jack being led to the police car [she] looked at them all a moment more, and then . . . ran.” Can we ever really forgive Marta for letting Jack go to jail for her and reinventing herself as Laura? Does Listfield ultimately redeem Laura?
10. “[L]ove is a difficult thing to calibrate or predict. Especially someone else’s. It is, rather, an easy thing to be mistaken about, to underestimate or overestimate. It’s rare that we ever truly discover the precise nature of another’s love. I’m not sure we would want to if we could.” (217) How does this line of thinking apply to Jack and David? Can we relate it to Astrid and Garner?
11. How does the side story of the Townsends tie in to the novel? Why do you think Listfield incorporates it in to The Last Good Night
12. Why is the Townsends’ home filled with “Madame Alexander dolls with rouged cheeks and enormous eyes, dressed in tutus and taffeta gowns” (247)? Do you find this a joyful image or a dark one?
13. Almost every chapter, especially once the story progresses, starts with a reference to “when it
started.” What is the “it” that Listfield and Laura refer to? And when do you think “it” really started?
14. What do you make of Astrid and Garner? Do you ever sympathize with the mother? Does Laura’s understanding of her own mother change as she herself becomes a mom?
15. What do you think would have happened if Marta had appealed to the cops who arrested Jack? Do you think that she would have been blamed for the murder herself? Should she have turned herself in despite the consequences?
16. On her website, www.EmilyListfield.com, the author writes: “I’ve always been fascinated by the question of how well you can ever know another human being.” Talk about how The Last Good Night
itself explores that question. Is it just Laura whom we discover new things about, or do other characters surprise us as well?
17. What do you think will happen between David and Laura after the end of the novel? Will they stay together? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Call your local news station to find out whether they provide guided tours of the studio. How does seeing a real studio flesh out the scenes at Laura’s workplace and with her cohost Quinn?
2. Take a photo of a celebrity from People
magazine and try to reimagine them as they might have looked in a past life, as Jack did with Laura’s photo. Compare your own against another one done by another member of your book club—do your “past” photos look similar?
3. Laura’s agent, Jerry, tells her when the Marta story is published that he has already gotten three book offers (324). Think about if you were publishing your own memoir—what would you say about your own life? Would you be comfortable publishing it for all to read?
4. If you could reinvent yourself, pick up from your current life, and move to a new city to start a new career, where would you go and what would you do? What would be the most difficult things to leave behind? What would you be glad to start over again? A Conversation with Emily ListfieldYou wrote this book earlier in your career as an author; it was published almost twelve years ago and now is being reissued in 2009. How has the experience of writing changed for you over the years? Do you remember doing anything differently when you wrote this book than you do nowadays?
In some ways writing never changes. There is always the struggle to get inside your characters’ hearts and find the best way to convey their lives and actions. I am more patient with the process now than I was earlier in my career, though, perhaps because I have gone through the bouts of self-doubt as well as the pleasure of seeing a completed book more times. I think, too, that as with anything, you continue to learn the craft the more you practice it. On a personal note, when I wrote The Last Good Night,
I had a very young child. My daughter is fifteen now and she most certainly does not sit on my lap anymore while I type! You thank both the news media world and police department in your acknowledgments; did this book require a lot of research?
One of the things I like best about writing novels is that it gives you an excuse to enter into other people’s worlds, to ask questions and observe places you might not otherwise have access to. When I began writing The Last Good Night,
I called up a local television anchor, Dana Tyler, and she very graciously allowed me to follow her around for a few days as she prepared and then went on air to deliver the evening news. It was fascinating to go behind the scenes, from the makeup room to the set. It really is the only way to truly reflect the pacing and color of a world you are not familiar with. I have also found the police department very generous in their help. They get a kick out of describing what they go through and helping to get the details right. Do you imagine that after the last page of the novel, Laura goes back to using her real name, Marta?
The goal for all of us is the integration of our various selves, who we once were and who we have become. Laura, because she spent so long denying to herself and others that Marta even existed, is an extreme case of this. You can never truly erase your earlier identity or your actions, though—they are a part of your psyche. That said, it is valid to choose how to blend the past with the present self you have created, which has a truth of its own. Laura can no more go back to being Marta than she can deny that Marta existed.A lot of your books deal with domestic suspense.What do you think attracts you to this genre?
Questions of character, identity, love, and doubt all play out in our most intimate relationships. How we treat each other, whether we tell the truth or hide parts of ourselves, how we parent and pair up are the fabric of our lives. The ramifications of our decisions can reverberate through generations. These themes are universal and reflect our deepest desires, hopes, and fears. Though the canvas might seem small, the issues are enormous and, to me, endlessly compelling. How has the world of television changed since you wrote this book?
In a relatively short amount of time, the world of television news has changed immensely. The twenty-four-hour news cycle has spread to numerous channels, and the Internet has made split-second reporting the norm. This has created a vast need for fresh news at an unbelievable pace. There are more ways to get information and more people to get it from. Though this has brought more news anchors to the forefront, a star system still exists—and Katie Couric is still the only woman to anchor a network evening news program. When she took over, the scrutiny of her was far greater than it would have been for a man. The press reported not only on her skills but her personal life, her wardrobe, makeup choices, and temperament. Clearly, as far as we have come, there is still a way to go for women in the news. Almost all of your novels are set in New York City. What is the role of the city in your works?
I remain fascinated by New York. It is a place that lures people with the promise that they can find themselves, or lose themselves, both of which offer ripe areas of investigation for a novelist. Having grown up here, I see pieces of my past self on so many corners. At the same time, I am in awe of all those who dare to come here to reinvent themselves. New York is a character unto itself, a galvanizing force. Its challenges and promises highlight the desires and insecurities of all who live here. There are so many concentric circles of groups in the city, so many different ways to exist. It is rare to be a stranger in the place you know best, to be at once an insider and an outsider, but New York makes that possible. What are you working on now?
I am currently hard at work on a new novel that explores what happens when politics and long-held family secrets collide. The cost public figures and their families pay for keeping secrets or conversely, for revealing them, is fascinating to me in this age when so little is kept private.