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  1. Book ImageHouse Lights: A Novel

    Leah Hager Cohen

    “Tantalizing ... captivating ... provocative.”—Booklist

From the Author

This book, like each of my novels, began with a scene, or more of a snapshot, really, that came into my head and would not go away. In this case what I “saw” was a mother delivering her just-grown daughter to the house, and milieu, of a grandmother who was a renowned and formidable stage actress. The “snapshot” conveyed the daughter’s bright eagerness, the mother’s resentment and reluctance, the grandmother’s somewhat circumspect, ambiguous quality. But who were these people? What had happened in their lives to bring them to this place, this moment? Who else was involved in their lives? Where were they going, and what would happen among them now?

Not only these three women but also the idea of theater were present from the beginning. The idea of theater has always been very rich for me. It suggests illusion, but it also suggests acting, taking action, and these opposing notions—illusion vs. acting out against illusion—emerged more significantly as the story took shape.

From the time I was small I loved theater, and as I grew older I became fascinated by its dual, perhaps contradictory, promises: that of make-believe on the one hand and of presenting a forum in which to discover and speak truth on the other. As a teenager I spent many hours working in community theater and many more dreaming of a life onstage. Although I did not explicitly set out to write a theater novel, I found myself happily drawn to detailing the theatery parts of the story (the salon, the ensemble, the dynamics among cast and crew, the rhythms of rehearsal and performance), even as I began to notice how deeply (and disastrously) theater and acting functioned as metaphors in the Fisher-Hart family.

A word about the age difference between Beatrice and Hale: I wanted it to be even bigger. In earlier drafts, they were closer to being forty years apart. There was some concern, however, that readers would not tolerate such grotesquerie, and at the eleventh hour I gave in and shaved a decade off Hale’s age. But now I wonder whether he and Bea look like just another December-May couple, the object of snickering judgment—when what I wanted for them was something greater and more difficult: a romance that flouted expectation in an extreme fashion, really flying in the face of what we might recognize as possible or permissible. I wished for them to have to insist on the legitimacy of their love despite even graver obstacles, and in so doing to gain an ever deeper belief in its trueness.

Discussion Questions

  1. Beatrice often draws parallels between life and acting. At the beginning of the novel, she reimagines the clandestine meeting with her grandmother as a “scene titled: Beatrice’s Audition.” At other times, Beatrice depicts her parents as actors working hard to carry out the roles of perfect parents, spouses, and professionals. How does this relationship between life and theater play out in the novel?
  2. Why does Beatrice begin to fabricate stories as part of her historical tour at the Conway Jimerson Homestead, and how does this experience inform her acting?
  3. Exposure to a painful, hidden truth sparks a rift between Beatrice and her father. Beyond the actual accusations of sexual harassment, what angers Beatrice about this sudden revelation of her father’s history?
  4. How does Beatrice pursue independence from her parents?
  5. How does Beatrice view her mother’s decision to stay with her father? Does her attitude change throughout the novel?
  6. How does Beatrice’s estranged relationship with her father compare to Sarah’s relationship with her mother? Do Sarah and Margaret’s steps toward reconciliation foreshadow a similar future for Beatrice and her father?
  7. Beatrice is the youngest, most inexperienced member of her grandmother’s salon. How does she use her youth to her advantage?
  8. What does Beatrice have in common with her character, Thisbe? Discuss the theme of transgression as it applies to both Hale’s production and Beatrice’s own life.
  9. Why is Beatrice attracted to Hale? Is he the answer to a search for a father figure, as Beatrice’s own father strongly believes?
  10. How do Beatrice and Hale confront their age difference?
  11. What is the effect of the author’s use of flashback in the novel?
  12. At her mother’s funeral, Beatrice reflects on her grandmother’s strength and grace, asking, “[H]ow does shame transform from a stultifying burden to an ennobling one?” Discuss the different manifestations of shame in the novel and its potential for producing a positive change in character.
  13. Beatrice can’t help but attach meaning to her history of miscarriages. What do you think is the significance of her inability to carry a baby to term, and why are we led to believe that this last pregnancy might be different?

Leah Hager Cohen’s Reading Suggestions

  • The Fever by Wallace Shawn and Twilight: Los Angeles by Anna Deavere Smith
    These two plays shook me and made me excited about theater’s ability to speak truth.
  • A Long and Happy Life by Reynolds Price
    Besides being in thrall to Price’s language, I’m bananas about his heroine, Rosacoke Mustian. She helped me see myself, the world, and the condition of heartache more clearly and compassionately.
  • The Adventures of Mabel by Harry Thurston Peck
    In my mind I hear these stories, first published in 1896, in my grandmother’s voice—right down to the Lizard King’s magical whistle. My favorite is the one about the Brownie Jelly.
  • The Cinnamon Peeler by Michael Ondaatje
    The cover shows a man and a woman photographed by Romualdo García in Mexico around the turn of the century. The image so arrested me that I bought the book, perhaps foolishly, on the basis of it alone—then wound up finding the poems inside equally compelling, and they led me in turn to Ondaatje’s other work.
  • Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin
    After many years of ambivalence around food, I have come to love cooking and eating as well as reading about food. This book is so cozy. If you were home with a miserable cold on a rainy day, you could curl up with a blanket and read the stories and recipes and feel quite nice.

About Leah Hager Cohen

Leah Hager Cohen has written seven books, including Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World, and the novels Heat Lightning and Heart, You Bully, You Punk. She lives with her three children in Belmont, Massachusetts.

Books by Leah Hager Cohen

  1. Book CoverHouse Lights: A Novel

    “Tantalizing ... captivating ... provocative.”—BooklistMore