Readers’ Guide for
Disasters: A Novel
1. What was your first impression of the narrator? Did you identify with her struggle to connect with people through home entertaining?
2. What, besides throwing a dinner party, is the narrator’s greatest challenge? Is she able to meet it by novel’s end?
3. While the narrator remains unnamed, the husband is “Somebody,” the mother is Lenore, the father is George and all the siblings’ names begin with H. What is the significance of names in the novel? Did you feel compelled to name the narrator and if so, what name did you give her?
4. Throughout her life, the narrator is forced to question labels such as wife, husband, mental patient and normal person. How do these definitions change from her childhood to present day and what effect do these shifting definitions have on her life?
5. What is the narrator’s relationship to her mother in the beginning of the novel and how has it changed by the novel’s end?
6. What do you think the narrator’s sister, Hunter, hopes to accomplish with her “gift”? Do you think there is hope of the two women having a mutually satisfying relationship? Why or why not?
7. Do the characters seem believable? Can you identify with the characters–the narrator, the mother, the husband, and the father? To what extent do they remind you of people that you know?
8. How does the narrator evolve and change during the week prior to the dinner party? Discuss some of the events that trigger those changes. Are they believable?
9. The author has said that one of her goals in writing ED was to better understand the epidemic of mental illness among housewives in the suburbs of the 1950s and 60s. Did she shed new light on this concern? Did it change your views regarding mental illness?
10. Los Angeles is one of the largest home-based worker communities in the country. According to sociologists, Americans in general are entertaining far less in their homes and socializing with friends and family than they did in the 1970s, and increasingly so. How do conditions in contemporary Los Angeles for working people replicate these conditions for suburban women in the 1950s and ‘60s? How do they differ?
11. Do you consider the narrator’s life glamorous or enviable?
12. Were there passages of the book that made you uncomfortable? If so, which passages and why?
13. Under what circumstances might Lenore’s life have been different? How would the resulting family have been different?
14. The father, George, is a sailor and has his own boat. What does this say of his way of dealing with life’s challenges? Is Lenore a sailor, as well? Where does this leave their children?
15. Does the author succeed in her efforts at interweaving past and present, humor and pathos, in the novel?
16. What role does food play in Entertaining Disasters? The grains of Paradise, balsamic vinegar, artichokes and Blenheim apricots represent what themes in the novel? Which foods most resonated with you and why? What recipes were your favorites and which would you most like to actually try?
17. What do the presence of the 19th Century writers, Mrs. Isabella Beeton, Charlotte Gilman Perkins and Leo Tolstoy contribute to the novel?
18. What part do the mid-century television shows, Father Knows Best, Queen for a Day and The Twilight Zone, play in the novel?
19. The childhood house and the contemporary house in the novel are characters in their own right. How does one differ from the other? How are they the same?
20. In the novel, the child narrator watches a Shirley Temple movie and wonders what it would feel like to “never be let go.” Do you think the narrator ever does or ever will experience that, and if so, how?
21. Is it better to be a candidate on Queen for a Day or to keep one’s problems private, as the narrator’s family does, leaving the narrator as a child to believe that “we have no problems of our own.”? What social, economic or historic circumstances might account for the family’s way of dealing with Lenore’s problems and their own?
22. What does the novel say about the American Dream of house and garden, marriage and family?