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  1. Book ImageHousehold Words: A Novel

    Joan Silber

    Winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award: "Unqualified praise goes to this rarity: an extraordinary novel about ordinary people."--Chicago Tribune

The Author on Her Work

Household Words was my first novel, and one crucial decision was to tell it from the point of view of the mother, Rhoda, a character with whom I was not entirely in sympathy. I had originally thought I might begin with her and then move into the viewpoints of the two daughters, but once I began, I saw that I already knew what the daughters thought, but inhabiting Rhoda was more of a stretch. I began to notice that in life I had my own interests to look out for, but in writing I could afford to be more generous.

I had a good time researching the details (I spent a lot of hours looking at old copies of Life magazine) and thinking about the expectations of Americans in the years 1940 to 1960. Every era has its own assumptions, its own set of truths about how life works, and they’re never enough—life is always trickier and stranger. Fiction is necessarily interested in the moment when the rug is pulled out from under a person—when whatever seemed only natural to rely on is all of a sudden not there.

As a writer, I’ve remained interested in getting under the skin of characters whose behavior isn’t always likable. Recently, when I gave a reading in a bookstore, a fellow writer in the audience handed me a slip of paper with a quotation from Philo of Alexandria—”Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

Discussion Questions

  1. The story is seen through Rhoda’s eyes, and yet the author has said she did not always agree with Rhoda’s views. How can a reader see this in the writing; where are the clues? What was your final judgment of Rhoda?
  2. Rhoda does not believe in luck, yet the circumstances of her life seem unlucky. Loss, illness, even the personalities of her children seem out of her control. Are there factors in her character that make her life more difficult than it might have been?
  3. What did the story make you think about how much of life can be controlled, about the roles of fate and will? What do the people around Rhoda think about this? What are most Americans likely to think now?
  4. We meet Rhoda when she is pregnant with her first child, and the story ends twenty years later. How would the story have been different if it covered a shorter time span? What techniques does the author use to convey the passage of time? Is a long time span more familiar from novels of another century, or have you also found it in contemporary stories?
  5. It used to be said that in any story a character has to change. Does Rhoda change or remain the same? Did this book challenge—in this way or others—your notions of what a story should do?
  6. Would this story have been different if it were set today? How do Rhoda’s actions reflect the “assumptions” of her era? Is she at odds with any of the ideas around her? Would her children seem different in today’s world?
  7. There is a great deal of detail in this novel—we see and feel the textures of this world very closely. Is Rhoda herself too involved with small things? What effect did this close texturing have on your reading?
  8. It’s unusual to have the character who’s telling the story die onstage. How did the author handle this? Does the ending enlarge the story in any way? A reviewer described the book as “quite nearly heartbreaking.” What makes a sad event in one book more affecting than in another?
  9. One reviewer said this novel reminded her of the sentence in Tolstoy’s “Death of Ivan Ilych”: “His life was most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” What’s meant by “therefore” and does this novel support it? What are the dilemmas in writing about ordinary life? Did finishing this book make you see ordinary life at all differently?

About Joan Silber

Joan Silber is the author of eight works of fiction. Among many awards and honors, she has won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction and has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York City.

Books by Joan Silber

  1. Book CoverFools: Stories

    Longlisted for the National Book Award

    "'Linked' doesn’t begin to describe the complex web Silber has woven…Emotionally, it’s astounding…[A] beautiful, intricate, and wise collection." —New York Times Book ReviewMore

  2. Book CoverHousehold Words: A Novel

    Winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award: "Unqualified praise goes to this rarity: an extraordinary novel about ordinary people."--Chicago TribuneMore

  3. Book CoverIdeas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories

    Shortlisted for the National Book Award: "Joan Silber writes with wisdom, humor, grace, and wry intelligence. Her characters bear welcome news of how we will survive."—Andrea BarrettMore