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A Reader's Guide

Almost: A Novel


Almost, Elizabeth Benedict's "emotionally profound and richly textured" (Maureen Corrigan, NPR) fourth novel, is "her most spirited to date" (New York Times Book Review). The hilarious opening does little to prepare either the reader or the narrator, Sophy Chase, for the drama of what is to come. Almost divorced, Sophy is in bed with her new lover — an art dealer and the father of four young children — when the police call her with shocking news. Her almost ex-husband, Will, has died suddenly on the Massachusetts island where she left him just months before.

Lured back to the island by feelings she thought she had left behind, Sophy must navigate treacherous emotional terrain involving her grown stepdaughters, a former lover who is now a celebrity lawyer, the mystery of her husband's death — and her own darkest impulses. Almost presses us to wonder how much responsibility we bear for other people's happiness — and who exactly we are when we're in limbo. As Jeff Giles wrote in Newsweek, "Almost is . . . about grief and love, about figuring out who your friends really are and what, if anything, you owe everybody else . . . I don't know what to compare it to — except life."

About the Author

Elizabeth Benedict is the author of Slow Dancing, a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize; The Beginner's Book of Dreams; Safe Conduct; and The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers. Her work has appeared in Salmagundi, the New York Times, Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, the American Prospect, Tin House, and other periodicals. She has taught writing at Princeton University, the New School for Social Research, Swarthmore College, and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. During the spring of 2003 she will teach fiction at MIT and creative nonfiction at the Harvard Extension School. She lives in New York City and Somerville, Massachusetts.

Questions for Discussion

1. Several of the reviews described the novel as an "almost mystery." In what ways is it and isn't it a "real mystery"?

2. Sophy's narration of Almost is marked by high humor and comic pacing in the midst of tragic circumstances. Does her sense of humor seem out of place or appropriate? At what point in your reading did you sense the story would take a much darker turn? What hints does Sophy give along the way?

3. The Washington Post described Sophy as a heroine who is "insecure, obsessed, fragile, generous, and ultimately strong enough to gather herself up and go on. She is also funny." In the course of the book, she goes through wild swings of emotion and circumstances: sexual ecstasy, maternal feelings, and sudden, profound grief — an identity crisis. Could you identify with the range of intense feelings coming so close together, with having an identity forced on you that was not of your own choosing?

4. Almost was published a week before September 11, 2001. Many reviews appeared before that date, and several appeared after it. The later reviews noted that the book's emphasis on sudden death and dramatic life changes had a special resonance after September 11. Did your own reaction to the events of September 11 allow you to identify better with Sophy? When have you identified strongly with fictional characters because of parallels in your own life? How much do your own experiences affect the way you interpret fiction?

5. Sophy has many complicated feelings in relation to Will's death, but she feels guilt most profoundly. She struggles with how much guilt she "should" feel — and how much responsibility she bears for his death. Do you feel she assumed too much or not enough or just the right amount?

6. One early title of the book was Longing for Children, but the author decided against that title because it had a heaviness that she felt would telegraph too much to readers. Might your experience of the book have been different had it been called Longing for Children?

7. In her author's note, Benedict says that some of these events were inspired by her own life. Were you compelled or distracted by that information? Had she not said this directly, would you have imagined that any of the events were autobiographical?

8. The last chapter of Almost is titled "A Happy Ending." Does the author mean this seriously or ironically? If you were to rewrite the ending, how might you do it differently?

9. Many reviewers and readers have commented that some of the key questions in the novel are not neatly tied up and answered by the end. Does the lack of answers enrich the story for you, or do you wish the author had provided answers? What do you think Benedict meant to convey by not answering some of the key questions?

An Interview with Elizabeth Benedict

Q) Where did you get the idea for this book?

A) I was a newly divorced woman living again in New York City. I'd begun writing a group of short stories based very loosely on the imperfect romantic arrangements I saw all around me. The stories were comic, manic, over the top — one way of reacting to the trauma of suddenly being single again in a world as fragmented, isolated, and chaotic as New York. My phone rang one night. It was the police calling from Massachusetts to tell me that the man I had been married to for ten years — and divorced from for two months — had been found dead in his house; it looked as though he had died in his sleep.

So began a time of real chaos, trauma, and mystery. Part of the mystery was what my role could be as ex-wife and as ex-stepmother of my husband's son, in this shocked and grieving family. The other mystery was how my ex-husband had died, since he had been dead for too long for there to be easy answers.

I soon thought of myself as an "almost-widow": I had a widow's grief but none of her rights, a widow's anguish but none of her status as "the bereaved," who needed care and attention. I knew people who didn't understand why I was so upset, who thought that because we were divorced, the death wouldn't matter so much. But although we were divorced, we had not seen each other since the day, only seven months before, when we separated.

I began writing a memoir about these events, about the precariousness of identity and the strange tricks life plays on us: we leave a marriage in search of another life, and suddenly we're thrust back into the life we tried to leave behind, as if a giant had collared us and said, "Hey, not so fast." But what a sad story. I worked on the memoir for three months, continually coming up against the bleakness of it. Where could I find the humor and high spirits that are important in my life and my fiction? I kept returning to my unfinished funny short stories about being single in New York. Then there came a moment when I decided to combine the two: to turn the memoir into a novel, to take the high humor of the stories and map them onto the story of this death — and turn the whole thing into a much livelier, multilayered, far-reaching effort. The claustrophobia of the memoir was suddenly blown apart. I could feel an energy that would make the project far more compelling to me than an account of what happened and how I felt about it. I could invent a whole world in which the death was simply the organizing event. Little did I know it would take four more years of work to bring off!

Q) The novel reads as if it's an autobiography. From what you're saying, it is and it isn't.

A) Novelists are ventriloquists, mimics, tricksters, and, with any luck, magicians. We lie for a living. I recently came across two lines from a Seamus Heaney poem ["Known World" in Electric Light] that stopped me in my tracks: "How does the real get into the made-up./Ask me an easier one." I worked very hard to make Sophy sound as if she is addressing the reader — confiding in the reader a story that she urgently needs to tell. But the story she tells about her life is not my life story. Almost isn't an account of my childhood, my marriage, and certainly not of the week that followed the discovery of my husband's death. I invented characters, histories, and situations I have never encountered, all to create a dramatic story that was true only to some details about the death and to the emotional upheaval and psychic dislocation I experienced. That is why the novel took so long to write.

One of the pivotal scenes takes place at a beachside clambake. I've never been to a clambake; I'm allergic to shellfish. In order to write the scene, I phoned someone I found in the telephone directory who caters upscale clambakes and picked her brain for an hour. (At first she refused to talk to me; she suspected I was working for her competition and wanted her secret recipes!)

Q) How much like you is the narrator, Sophy?

A) There are elements of me in each of the characters, the way each of the people in a dream is said to be a version of the dreamer. Because Sophy is the narrator and the character we learn the most about, it makes sense to wonder — I wonder myself! — how similar we are. Sophy and I share some deep feelings — about loss, guilt, and longing — but I'm more restrained than she is, better behaved, even under pressure. There are times in the novel when she's difficult, angry, and obnoxious — when she acts out in ways that I would not. Her bad behavior ends up getting her into trouble, which she spends a good bit of the novel trying to get out of. I wanted her to be her own worst enemy — or one of them — because she's pushed to the breaking point and because it's more intriguing than just being a victim of circumstances. Almost takes a very different turn when Sophy becomes an actor in her own undoing.

Q) What, in your mind, is the book about? Why is it called Almost?

A) In the aftermath of my ex-husband's death, I was gripped by three questions: What is our responsibility to someone we have loved, married, and then divorced? What happens when we have an identity we never imagined thrust on us? How do we experience ourselves and how do others perceive and relate to us when who we are is suddenly up for grabs? Because I'm a novelist rather than a philosopher or a psychologist, I explored my obsessions by dramatizing them in fiction.

The title Almost came to me months after I finished the book. The publisher asked me to write a summary of what it was about. As I contemplated that task and began to think through the actual description — it's about a woman who's almost divorced, in an almost relationship, who then becomes an almost widow — there it was.

Q) What is your writing process?

A) I work on a laptop computer and I rewrite constantly. I work chapter by chapter and print out what I've done at the end of every day and read it with a pencil that night. The next day, when I make changes on the computer, I continue writing, printing out every day, reading the chapter every night from the beginning, so that by the time a chapter is done, it's been rewritten dozens and dozens of times, at least. But if the next chapter doesn't work — which I might find out a month into it — I may start rewriting the book from the beginning. In the course of writing a novel I might return to the beginning and rewrite five times to propel and set up what happens much later.

Several years ago at OfficeMax, I found a pad of giant Post-it notes, about two feet by three feet. I stick them up all over the walls, wherever there's room. When I don't know what to do, I stand at them with a marking pen and start writing — ideas, notes, anything. I don't censor myself. The size of the paper is liberating, and being able to write big is too, as is seeing the notes on the wall when I look up from the computer. They're good reminders. I feel a little like Jackson Pollock throwing paint, but for me it's a way to loosen up so I can imagine things on a large scale before I shrink everything down to the page and then obsess over every word.

Q) Who are your models?

A) When I was in college, I had literary love affairs with Joan Didion and Virginia Woolf. This was 1972, '73, '74, in the early to middle days of the women's movement, before our lives were filled with fiction by women. I was taken with Joan Didion the way you would be by someone's exotic older sister: she was at once distant and familiar. I can't think of another American woman writer in those years and for the rest of the decade who had anything like her visibility, grace, hipness, or versatility as a writer; as a journalist she had independence, opinions, access to the world at large. She had a husband and then a child — and wrote about all of this in a way that seemed intimate. I was looking then not just for clues about writing but for ideas about how women writers might live. (There wasn't much to pick up and apply by observing the private lives of the two Johns, Updike and Cheever.) Virginia Woolf was the writer who stayed home and wrote, who lived the more circumscribed woman's life. I had a senior writing tutorial with Elizabeth Hardwick at Barnard, and she was a literary model of another sort. I love her novel Sleepless Nights. Now I'm less susceptible to lives than to work. Philip Roth is a literary hero, because he's always pushing the limits and because he's laid claim to his material so tenaciously and unapologetically. Nadine Gordimer is a hero too, as are many others: Russell Banks, J. M. Coetze, Edmund White. I love Evelyn Toynton's novel Modern Art, Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy, and Jose Saramago's Blindness.

Q) What are you working on now?

A) Earlier this year I published a revision of The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers, which originally came out in 1996. I had a great time doing the revision and reading fiction that has come out in the last six years. Joy was just published in England, and the reviews were wonderfully respectful and serious. I'm considering doing a book about teaching creative nonfiction. But my main writing energy is now going into a new novel. I'll leave it at that for the moment.

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