This reading group guide for Two If by Sea includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jacquelyn Mitchard. 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. Introduction
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A day after losing his wife and unborn child in a tsunami in Australia, American ex-pat Frank Mercy rescues a young boy from the floodwaters. Frank unaccountably decides to return to his family’s horse farm in Wisconsin with the boy.
Frank quickly begins to suspect that the boy—who he’s named Ian—has an extraordinary gift, but Ian has been so traumatized that he is mute. As Frank learns to be a parent to this strange child, he settles back into continuing the work he began in Australia as a trainer of elite show jumping horses. Frank meets Claudia, a young psychiatrist and champion equestrian with Olympic hopes, and she ends up as the perfect rider for Frank’s horse Glory Bee and becomes a companion for Frank. With her, Frank can share his emotional life and his concerns about Ian, as it becomes clear that keeping Ian’s gift a secret is impossible. Someone sinister is looking for Ian. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What if there really were a child with Ian’s gift? What would the people who love such a child owe him? To protect him from those who would use him and let him have an ordinary life? to develop his gifts and learn to share them? What would such a child owe the world? How would you protect someone with abilities like Ian’s? Evaluate Frank’s approach and Julia Madrigal’s.
2. There are many different types of families in Two If by Sea
: for example, Tura and Cedric; the Donovan clan; Frank’s family; and Claudia, her sisters, and her widowed father. How does each character draw what he or she needs from their biological family—or the family he or she creates?
3. Jacquelyn Mitchard uses beautiful language to describe the magical relationships that can exist between people and animals, especially horses. Why is it important to the novel that Frank is a horse trainer? What do the horse farms and the community around them add to the novel? How do the relationships with animals add to our understanding of Ian’s abilities and the power and vulnerability that come with them?
4. Were you surprised by Frank’s decision to take Ian? How do you explain this? Can there ever be a time when doing something that is wrong in the eyes of the world be the only right choice?
5. In the aftermath of the tsunami, Frank thinks: “Life was not a statement of choice in the fucking good earth or whatever Cedric had said. Life was as random as a pair of dice with ten sides.” Is Frank right? Or is Cedric? Why or why not? Do you think by the end of the book that Frank would still feel that way?
6. Do you believe that Ian has supernatural powers? Or do you believe that Ian is no more than an especially charismatic little boy? How does your understanding of Ian’s skills change throughout the course of the novel? How does it change when more of the boy’s history is revealed?
7. When Ian talks for the first time at Eden’s wedding, how does that moment function as a turning point? How does it affect Frank? At what points do the words Ian says to Frank cause him to take the next step at every critical point in their relationship?
8. Consider the following passage, as Frank proposes to Claudia: “Love can make people cruel. Love can make people weak. Love doesn’t always stay the same. And sometimes it goes dark, like a star that gets extinguished and just leaves the memory of its light.” Despite its cruelties and pitfalls, why is love worth the trouble? Why does Frank ask Claudia to love him, despite all the challenges he faces?
9. Has Frank fully experienced his grief when he asks Claudia to marry him? Why or why not? When, if ever, does Frank come to terms with his feelings for his dead wife?
10. Two if By Sea
considers parenthood from every possible angle and in every possible iteration. Discuss how each character approaches the idea of parenthood. What does the power and responsibility of parenthood mean to Frank? To Claudia? To Hope? To Eden and Marty? Even to Glory Bee? What is Mitchard (who has nine children of her own, both through birth and adoption) asking the reader to consider about the bonds between parents and their children, the bonds of blood and those of choice?
11. What is the significance of the novel’s title?
12. Why are the relationships Ian and Colin forge in Britain ultimately so important? Why does Frank feel safe enough to let the boys out alone?
13. Frank’s mother says about leaving their farm: “It’s as if I’m not leaving home, Frank, it’s leaving me.” There are strong themes of finding a sense of home and family throughout Two If by Sea
. Which qualities create a sense of home for each character? What creates a sense of family? Are they same thing? Why or why not?
14. The book starts with Frank seeing the wave “that would sweep away the center of his life in the minutes after midnight, and, by the time the sun rose, send surging into his arms the seed of his life to come.” How did tragedy make way for what would come next in Frank’s life? How did tragedy inform the lives of other characters? If there is a message about human existence behind the author’s insistence in seeing the “next wave,” what is it? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Find a professional horse show near you and attend with your book club. Check out the calendar of events on the United States Equestrian Federation website, www.usef.org/_IFrames/competitions/calendar/calendar.aspx
, to locate a competition.
2. Jacquelyn Mitchard is perhaps most famous for her first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean
, which was the inaugural Oprah Book Club pick and later adapted for a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer. Read her first novel with your book club and compare the themes of family, raising young children, and strong female characters with those in Two If by Sea
3. According to Frank, “A ‘toasted cheese’ sandwich was his mother’s remedy for anything.” What comfort foods are special to your family? Share a favorite recipe with your book club or bring some favorite comfort food dishes to your next club meeting.
4. Learn more about Jacquelyn Mitchard and her many bestselling novels at www.jacquelynmitchard.com
. A Conversation with Jacquelyn Mitchard How did you come to write Two If by Sea? What was your inspiration?
So many things start with something you see, but don’t understand—at least, you don’t understand what this eventually will mean to you. I saw a photograph of a Christmas tree underwater in a flood, but all its lights were still bravely burning. And later on, it seemed to me that Ian was like that tree. Life had tried to extinguish him, but he was not only strong, he was magical, and he would survive. This novel takes us from the far reaches of Australia to a working horse farm in Wisconsin to the picturesque countryside of England. How have your own travels inspired your writing?
Don’t I wish! Like Thoreau, I have traveled much in Concord . . . however, yes, I have been in Australia, specifically in the places where Frank begins his life with Ian, and I lived in Wisconsin (on a farm!) for many years. The countryside of England is one of my favorite places, although I haven’t been there as much as I would like. I do go to Ireland every year to teach, and it’s like heaven on earth. I’m very at home with my moisturizer and leggings in my suitcase.
There is a strong thread of family and creating one’s own family throughout the novel. Why was it important for you to write about this?
My own family was created in many ways—through birth, marriage, and adoption. I was widowed in my late thirties, and I had three little boys, and then adopted a baby girl as a single mother, a girl who’s now a teenager. Two of my daughters were born in Ethiopia. Even more important, the person I consider my little sister isn’t part of my birth family: our relationship simply transcends friendship. Family can be your prison, or it can be your harbor. More important to me than anything else, even writing stories, is creating and keeping an enduring, forgiving, committed family. People who have strong families grow up more confident, I think, no matter how those families came to be. And as far as my story, well, Frank didn’t even know that family was the answer to the question he was asking of life. Grief and loss are also central themes in the novel, as Frank deals with the loss of Natalie, his unborn child, the Donovans, and Tura and Cedric. What do you want the reader to learn through Frank’s processing of his grief?
One thing that we don’t want to admit (I sure don’t) is that all of us are standing on the trapdoor, and, at some point, no matter how careful or hopeful we are, the trapdoor is going to open. What Frank learns about loss and grief is twofold—that grief is blunt and brutal, but that, if you can bear the good memories, they can help you go forward in life, changed but hopeful. At several places throughout the novel, he asks the blessing of his “brave girl,” his beloved lost wife. Some kinds of grief would be without lesson, for me, and unendurable, such as outliving one of my children. Other kinds of grief, even the death last year of a dear friend my own age, made me cherish life (and cherish her!) even more. Your descriptions of the strength and beauty of horses and the joy of riding are exuberant and inviting enough to make anyone want to take riding lessons. What role do animals, perhaps horses, play in your own life?
There’s a long and rather colorful history with horses in my own life, starting with the fact that my parents rode and trained horses and met when they were both riding the rodeo—this, although they grew up in Chicago! My parents were involved with some pretty awful, shady characters at the barns where they hung out (I mean criminals, lowlifes) but also some people who were just astonishingly good and loving. I used to own draft horses. In fact, I had a Clydesdale mare named Black Magic who once was a Budweiser wagon puller. As Frank says, horses are big and dumb and scary, but they also are loyal and strong and beautiful . . . and fragile. I think of Glory Bee as being strong and fragile, like Ian. Raising or adopting young children figures in large ways in several of your books. What does this allow you to explore in your writing?
It allows me to ask the question: Whose life have I ruined by bringing her into my own magical world? Ugh! Really, though, seriously, several of my children were adopted, and several were not; and the thing that I’ve learned as a parent is that a child’s nature is not necessarily predetermined by his sharing your genetic heritage. Parents just like to think that. It gives us the illusion that anything on earth involving a child can be predicted, when, beyond eye color, it absolutely cannot, because all children are space aliens and universes unto themselves. Ian’s and Colin’s abilities are quite remarkable and open the possibility of there being a supernatural world. Were these abilities inspired by something real, or are they a work of pure imagination?
Ian and Colin have abilities that quite certainly don’t exist in real life. What I wanted to do in the story was to create them in the context of real life, so that not only did the boys seem real, what they do seemed real and even ordinary—as it certainly was ordinary to them. Do I wish that there really was a child who could cause people to do the right thing by asking them to be good? You bet I do. But think about it. To a lot of people, that would be one scary kid. That part is sad. Who is your favorite character in the novel? Why?
Frank’s mother, Hope, and, yes, Frank, too. Hope, however, is that wonderful combination of a seasoned person who’s calm and settled but also adventurous: she learns to love and tolerate even what she can’t understand. And she’s funny. Which character was the most challenging for you to write? Why?
It was difficult to create Linnet, who was gifted and charming and also capable of great evil . . . but perhaps not truly evil herself. To write about such a lonely, desperate character—little more than a child herself—in a way that would neither be condemning nor sympathetic was a struggle. Professional horse jumping and training is a huge part of this novel. What kind of research did you do to be able to accurately depict that world?
I had so many horse whisperers who led me to understand how extraordinary this experience is and why people devote hours of their day and years of their life to its mastery. The only time I ever jumped on a horse was unintentional: I was riding a friend’s horse who suddenly decide to go over a five-rail fence and I jumped—off, for my life! I broke my leg and my thumb, but not my Maui Jim sunglasses! I still have them. In the end, what do you want readers to take away from reading this book? What did you want readers to learn?
I hope I never write a book that is a story wrapped around a lesson, but I really did want to write a story in which the bleakest losses and fiercest dangers also conferred the possibility of new love and magic, if we could be strong enough to believe in it. There’s real magic in this novel; but I suppose that love, between lovers, friends, family members, is really the strongest magic we’ll ever know this side of heaven. Have you started on another project already? What’s next?
Oh boy, yes! I’m about halfway finished with my next novel, a ghost story loosely inspired by the legend of the lost Roanoke colony, in which the ghost is a young woman bent on mayhem in the worst degree. It’s so much fun I want to write another one . . . and my editor told me that reading a little slice of it scared the daylights out of her, even though she was sitting in a brightly lit office in the middle of Manhattan.