Koren Zailckas’ Mother, Mother features the Hurst Household, in which everything is perfectly normal . . . or that’s what Josephine Hurst would like people to think.
In truth, Josephine knows better than anyone that her family is falling apart: her husband, Douglas, is an alcoholic and possible adulterer; her sheltered son, William, suffers from stress-induced seizures; daughter Violet is using drugs and deliberately starving herself; and casting a shadow over all is the absence of her eldest child, Rose.
Josephine is determined to bring it all into line—or at least to make everything appear picture perfect to the outside world, no matter what the consequences to the damaged souls in her own home. But when she has deceived and manipulated and still has not regained control, Josephine’s methods turn from damaging to truly terrifying—and her children’s very lives hang in the balance.
Seen through the lenses of her two remaining children, the novel tells the story of a family spiraling into crisis as the lies they’ve lived with begin to crumble, and the truths they uncover threaten to tear them apart.
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In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal important aspects of the plot of this novel. If you have not finished reading Mother, Mother, we respectfully suggest that you wait before reviewing this guide.
1. With Violet’s drug use and Josephine’s manipulation influencing their perception of events, neither William nor Violet is completely reliable as a narrator. Did you consider one of them to be more trustworthy than the other? Were there other characters you would have liked to hear from as narrators?
2. Were you optimistic about Violet’s reunion with Rose? How did you envision their life together playing out?
3. Violet assumes that from their birth, Josephine never felt real love toward any of her children. Do you think that is true? Do you think it is possible for a parent to love his or her children and still behave in the ways Josephine did?
4. What do you imagine Josephine’s childhood was like? Do you think there is any truth to her assertion that her own upbringing was more painful than the one she is giving her children?
5. What do you think of Douglas’s role in the story? Does he share the blame for the state of his family? Do you think Josephine truly suspects him of having an affair, or is this part of her manipulation of William?
6. The hospital staff knows that Violet has used drugs and attempted to starve herself to death, and it is suspected that she violently injured her own brother—still, the theme of her treatment seems to be a supposed compulsion for lying. Why do you think this is? Why does her doctor insist she address it?
7. How does Violet compare to the friends she makes in the hospital? Does she seem to you to be saner than they are? Does she belong?
8. Was William’s misdiagnosis a deliberate scheme by Josephine? Do you think that, in her mind, she was truly trying to do right by him?
9. Were you surprised to learn from William’s narration that he found himself two academic years behind his peers at boarding school? What did you think of Josephine’s teaching methods? Was there some good in them?
10. Why does Josephine choose such violent means of “proving” Rose’s existence, including defacing family photographs and keying Douglas’s car? Are these premeditated acts? Are they at odds with her need to have Rose remembered as a “good girl”?
11. In general, is Josephine skillful in her cover-up of Rose’s death? Do you think she was close to pulling it off, or was discovery inevitable?
12. Violet predicts that William will never be fully free of his mother’s influence. How do you envision Josephine’s influence playing out in his adult life? How do you think Violet herself will feel the effects of Josephine’s cruelty in future relationships?
13. How would Josephine react to William’s emerging homosexuality?
14. Are there any good parents represented in the book? Do you think Rose would have been a good mother?
15. At the end of the book, Violet identifies the Hursts as the characters they have played: abuser, victim, bystander, hero. Which Hurst do you think she has in mind for each role? Do you agree with her characterizations?
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