The Bones of the Story
Tracing the genesis of a novel after you’ve written it can be a little like reconstructing a skeleton from millennia-old bones that have been scattered over great distances. I’m pretty sure, though, that this book started with the single image of a mother telling a bedtime story to her daughter. It was certainly a familiar image since, for the last ten or so years, I had ended each night by reading to my daughter for at least an hour. I chose, more often than not, fairy tales, both because she seemed to like them and because I have always loved them. Back in graduate school, I’d written a paper called “From Old Wives to Warrior Princesses” on the presence of fairy tales in contemporary ﬁction. I’ve always admired writers such as Angela Carter, A. S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Hoffman who integrate elements of fairy tales into their ﬁction, and I’m a big fan of Marina Warner’s study of fairy tales, From the Beast to the Blonde. Ultimately, though, the image of a mother telling stories to her daughter had a more intimate source: the stories my mother told me.
Instead of fairy tales, my mother brought me up on stories of her Irish-Catholic childhood in Depression-era Brooklyn, and moving to Coney Island as a young woman on the eve of World War II. In many ways these stories were as exotic and remote to me as fairy tales. Ice was delivered to their cold-water ﬂat in Bay Ridge by a horse-drawn cart, and oatmeal was cooked on a wood-burning stove. To a child growing up in a prefab development in suburban Pennsylvania, my mother’s descriptions of prewar.
Brooklyn sounded as quaint as Hansel and Gretel’s cottage. There was that same sense of cheerful and thrifty poverty. Dinner was sometimes bread and hot milk with sugar because that was all they had, but still her father prepared it as if it were a delicacy. Although they were poor, they never took charity and were proud and grateful when my grandfather got a job digging ditches for the WPA. My mother had only one white shirt to wear with her Catholic school uniform, but her mother washed and bleached and starched and ironed it every day so that “it could have stood up on its own” and looked every bit as good as anyone else’s.
My mother’s stories were ﬁlled with characters as colorful as any fairy tale’s. Her aunt Nanny was a burlesque dancer who dressed like a gypsy and was once arrested in New Haven for slapping a woman who turned out to be the police chief’s girlfriend. When my mother and her parents went to the jail to bail her out, my mother was so horriﬁed to see her beloved, beautiful aunt in a crude cell with an exposed toilet that she burst into tears. The police chief bent down and said to my mother that he would let her aunt out if the little girl “sang a little song and danced a little dance.” My mother always stressed at this point in the story—no matter how many times I had heard it—that she was a painfully shy child and nothing could have been more frightening to her than to perform in front of a strange adult. But she did. And her aunt Nanny was freed. Later we both conjectured that there must have been some exchange of money as well, but still, it was as good a Rapunzel story as I ever heard.
Like any genuine fairy tale, my mother’s childhood was rife with darkness and tragedy. She had a younger brother—Martin, but everyone called him Pet because when he was born my mother jealously referred to him as the family “pet”—who died in childhood.
“What of?” I asked, horriﬁed, but also peculiarly drawn. In my safe, post-vaccine, post-antibiotic 1960s world I’d never known a child to die. In my mother’s world, her own baby brother had died.
“I was never sure,” my mother told me at ﬁrst, “but I overheard the doctors say it had something to do with his head.”
Over years of telling this story, it eventually came out that my motherblamed herself for Pet’s death because he had fallen while she was babysitting him (she was under ten when it happened—later, she gave this as a reason for never letting young children baby-sit), but in later years she guessed that the reference to his “head” might have had something to do with meningitis. Unfortunately, my mother never shared with her parents the fact that she held herself accountable for Pet’s death. She thought they were generous and forgiving for never bringing it up or holding it against her.
I think it was only by telling Pet’s story over and over again that my mother was ﬁnally able to let go of that guilt. At ﬁrst the details of the story emerged as I grew old enough to understand them, but then they also grew as she understood them through the telling. My mother was making sense of her life by telling it to me. I can think of no better introduction to the writing process than witnessing that kind of storytelling, even though it was sometimes unsettling to hear what she had to say.
Listening to my mother’s stories, I was entranced by the other world she had lived in, but I also suffered a peculiar sense of displacement. It’s always a bit of a shock to realize that your parents have an existence outside their role as caretaker to you. It is that foreignness that makes the Selkie story so disturbing because it suggests the possibility that the mother can leave—which, in fact, she does. Nothing is more frightening to a child than a parent’s disappearance (death itself seems like an abandonment to a child) and my mother had that experience as well.
Like the daughter in the Selkie story, my mother lost her own mother young; she was seventeen and her mother was only forty-one. She was with her in that tenement kitchen when she suddenly collapsed. A blood clot, left over from a childhood bout of rheumatic fever, had ﬂown to her brain, killing her instantly. In the aftermath, my mother moved to Coney Island—only miles away from Bay Ridge, but a completely different world. For one thing, she had never met a Jewish person. One of her favorite stories is how she overheard a woman asking a deli owner for “sour cream” and laughed because she thought it was a joke. Coney Island in the forties was also ﬁlled with gangsters and heroin addicts. For a pretty, young girl on her own (my mother was and is quite beautiful—shopkeepers, once she stopped laughing at their sour cream, called her shaineh maidel, “pretty girl” in Yiddish), it would have been easy to fall in with the wrong crowd. Many beautiful young girls (according to my mother, Coney Island in the forties possessed an unusual percentage of beautiful girls) who were not so discriminating as my mother became prostitutes and drug addicts. These cautionary tales, which my mother favored as I entered my tumultuous adolescence, always ended with the pretty young girls losing their looks and their teeth. It was exciting to learn that my mother had known the legendary “Kiss-of-Death” girl (a Maﬁa girlfriend whose every boyfriend seemed to die prematurely), but also daunting to hear these teeth-loss stories as I headed out on a date. They sounded like an old-fashioned curse for bad behavior along the lines of the red-hot iron shoes Snow White’s stepmother (in the original Grimm version) is forced to dance in until she dies.
Although I might have begun to suspect the instructive nature of some of my mother’s tales, I knew even then that I was lucky that I got to keep hearing them and watch the ongoing process of my mother making sense of her life. What, I wondered, would it have been like if I only had the stories? That’s Iris’s situation in The Seduction of Water. All she has left of her mother is her stories, from which she must reconstruct her mother’s life and begin to construct her own story. The stories are Iris’s inheritance, her talisman.
There’s a kind of fairy tale in which a young girl whose mother has died is protected by some charm or familiar animal representing the lost mother. In “Yeh-hsien,” a Chinese version of Cinderella, the mother’s spirit inhabits a magic carp, which befriends and comforts Yeh-hsien. When the evil stepmother kills the carp, its very bones continue to protect the girl. This somewhat gruesome device of protective bones also appears in the Grimms’ “Aschenputtel,” in which an orphan girl is literally sheltered by a hazel sapling that grows out of the mother’s buried bones; and in the Scottish tale “Rashin Coatie,” in which the dead mother inhabits a red calf and continues to watch over her daughter even after the calf is slaughtered.
Instead of bones, Iris’s mother bequeaths to her stories. The Selkie story embraces the fear of losing a mother but also promises that a mother’s love is an enduring legacy. The fantasy tales contain—encoded—Iris’s mother’s own childhood tale of loss and resurrection. Most importantly, she passes on to Iris the ability and willingness to reveal and explore herself through storytelling. It’s what my mother gave to me through a lifetime of storytelling: the ability to make sense out of one’s own life and, out of that sense, craft the best life. An inheritance every bit as valuable as good bones and a sound set of teeth.
Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion
- Discuss your favorite fairy tale from your childhood. How did you learn the story and what did you learn from it? What does it mean to you now?
- The fairy tale assignment galvanized Iris’s students and helped them ﬁnd their own voices. Why do you think this assignment was successful on so many levels?
- Did you ever have a school assignment that affected you in such a manner? Discuss why it reached you and what it taught you.
- Both Iris and Phoebe are haunted by the early loss of their mothers. Discuss how these characters have been shaped by and have adapted to their losses and, more generally, how the death of a parent or a parental ﬁgure affects us all.
- A schism exists in Iris’s life: There’s a before and after her mother’s death. Do you have such a deﬁning event in your life? Discuss the various life-changing events—births, deaths, and other rites of passage— that can result in such a before-and-after outlook.
- Iris’s mother’s death is the deﬁning event of her life when this novel begins. Did you think it was going to remain the deﬁning event by the close of the novel?
- Iris confesses that she is “still not comfortable being the giver of grades, the passer of judgment.” Can you identify with her struggle? Why is it so difﬁcult for Iris to pass judgment?
- When Iris begins to investigate her mother’s past, she comes to understand that her mother felt like an impostor in her new life at the Hotel Equinox. Why is this so? Discuss the many reasons why people might feel like impostors in their own lives.
- Iris wonders whether Danny, the baker she meets in Brooklyn, or his brother Vincent, the painter, “is really the artist in the family.” What do you think? How do you deﬁne an artist?
- The ﬁnancial and personal toll exacted in securing the time and space to create art is central to this novel. Discuss the hurdles that artists face. Do you think female artists still confront more obstacles than their male counterparts?
- Have you ever suffered from writer’s block or a comparable afﬂiction in your own life? Did you resolve it? If so, how? If not, why not?
- Thinking about her relationship with Jack, Iris speculated, “Lover and beloved. Didn’t there always have to be one of each?” Do you agree?
- Aidan believes that “there’s more sorrow in not following your heart.” What do you think?
- The seven-year age difference between Aidan and Iris troubles Iris greatly. Do you think the pairing of older women and younger men—as opposed to the reverse—still carries a social stigma? Is this changing?
- Aidan is not a career criminal, but he worries that that will be his fate once he is released from jail. Discuss the plight of the ex-convict in our society.
- Iris’s mother spent much of her life observing and recording the carelessness of the wealthy and how they could ignore and mistreat those who served their needs. Discuss the class tensions in this novel, from the plight of Iris’s mother to Harry Kron’s attitude toward his staff to Aidan’s fears that he is not “good enough” for Iris.
- Iris’s unﬁnished dissertation is an analysis of her mother’s very personal ﬁction; an analysis hobbled by the daughter’s ignorance of the mother’s past. Discuss the complex blend of mythical, religious, and personal inﬂuences in K. R. LaFleur’s fantasy novels.
- Do you think learning the full truth about her mother will set Iris free to live her own life on her own terms?
- “She wouldn’t want me to spend my life telling her story, she would want me to tell my own,” Iris concludes at the close of the novel. Do you think Iris will write again? If so, what do you think she will write?
- What do you think would have happened to Kay and her family if she had told her husband the whole truth about her past? Could the tragedies that followed have been averted?
- Which characters are your favorites and why? Did you wish to hear more (or less) from certain characters in this novel?
- Discuss the structure of this novel. Did you ﬁnd the story-within-thestory format compelling?
- Do you think that The Seduction of Water deﬁes categorization in a single genre? How would you describe this novel to prospective readers?