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Evening Book Club: Book Club

Schedule, discussion questions, book lists, author information, reviews, and more.

Contact Information

For more information regarding the Evening Book Club, please contact: Jaclyn Gomez at

Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions


1. Consider the novel’s epigraph: "Not everybody gets to grow up. First you have to survive your childhood, and then begins the hard work of growing into it." Childhood and survival are central themes for this novel. Charlotte, Marcus, and his mother all had traumatic childhoods that influenced their behavior as adults. What tools do each of them employ to help them survive? What does it mean to "grow into" one’s childhood? Who in the book is a good example of that?

2. The turtle migration is a central fixture in Marcus’s new life; he convenes with the eggs each day, monitors their temperature closely, and is devastated when he misses their historic sprint from nest to ocean. Before the migration, he explains to them, "The reason we can’t pick you up and carry you is because you need to do the walk yourselves so you can smell the sand and remember your way back to this beach when you’re grown up" (151). Why are the turtles a source of comfort for Marcus? Compare and contrast their ancient ritual for survival to Marcus own journey towards growth and safety. How does the turtles’ journey serve as a foil for the other character’s attempts at survival?

3. Because of his relationship with Johnny’s ghost, Marcus often feels as if he straddles the line between sanity and insanity. He thinks, "The ghost-boy was related to my life, yet he was also an entity on his own terms.… Didn’t something have to be one thing or the other, either real or imagined?" (156) Discuss Marcus’s question: is it possible for something to be both real and imagined? In your opinion, does Marcus actually see a ghost in Grief Cottage or is he merely hallucinating an imaginary friend of sorts? How does this ghost story in particular challenge our preconceived notions of the boundaries of reality?

4. At a town hall, a scientist tells the crowd of island locals that their insistence on preservation will always fail: "The only losers will be the property owners fighting a hopeless battle to make nature stand still" (299). Many characters in the novel refuse to move forward or accept the inevitable: Marcus is scared to grow up, Charlotte won’t acknowledge her addiction; and Charlie Coggins tries diligently to sell Grief Cottage, even though it lies on a precarious stretch of beach that will soon erode into the ocean. Explore how the novel’s main characters find the strength to overcome their "hopeless battles." Discuss how Grief Cottage serves as a metaphor for how precarious and mysterious life can be.

5. The past and present are at constant odds throughout the novel: Marcus’s confidant Lachicotte is enamored with restoring the antique; the turtles prepare to embark on an annual, ancient tradition; Marcus finds himself obsessed with the fate of a family who inhabited the island over fifty years ago, only to develop a present-day relationship with the ghost of their teenage son. What point, if any, does the novel make about the function of time? Does the novel advocate for attempting to preserve the past or for letting it go? How do the characters reckon with, honor, and run from their pasts?

6. Despite receiving praise from his aunt, Marcus is constantly wracked with anxiety that she will find  him unsatisfactory and send him away. When Charlotte leaves for surgery, Marcus has a mental breakdown and is tormented by "Cutting Edge," a malicious voice urging him to take his own life. Cutting Edge taunts Marcus with his worst fear, "You aren’t wanted, you weren’t wanted, and you’re not going to be missed" (269). Discuss this part of Marcus’s personality. How does it impact his life and relationships? Why does Marcus feel unwanted despite reassurance? In your opinion, what is the seed of his insecurity?

7. Before his overdose is complete, Marcus races to see Johnny’s ghost at Grief Cottage. He thinks, "You were my sure. You were my lifeline…" (271). Explore Marcus’s inexplicable connection to Johnny’s ghost; in what ways are the boys similar or different? Why does Marcus feel closer to Johnny than any of living friends he has made so far? Marcus believes that "since ghosts don’t have living brains, the work must be done by the living person. The living person had to offer his brain as the dwelling place for the ghost" (133). Why does Marcus give himself to Johnny as a place to dwell? Likewise, why does Johnny choose Marcus as his host?

8. Discuss the significance of Marcus’s friendship with Wheezer. He often remembers their boyhood closeness fondly but is still haunted by Wheezer’s accusation. When Marcus returns to visit Wheezer years later, how has their relationship changed? How has it stayed the same? When the two friends catch up, Marcus learns that Wheezer also attempted suicide in his younger years. What brings each of these two boys, who have very different backgrounds, to the brink of death?

9. Charlotte begins painting a secret project when she loses the use of her right hand. Under the influence of Cutting Edge, Marcus sneaks into her studio to find "Only to you, my little sheets," an intimate and grotesque set of paintings about her abusive past. Later, in rehab, Charlotte tells her art students "your unpracticed hand will waver and wobble into places your controlling hand would never let you near" (290). How does her discomfort allow her to come to terms with her own ghosts? How does this logic apply to other aspects of the novel? Who else benefits from their discomfort, and how?

10. Discuss the significance of putting the soul to rest. William, Marcus’s interim guardian before Charlotte, implores him to bury his mother soon so "you’ll know you can always come back and find her in the same place" (148). By the end of the novel, Marcus has to bury not only his mother, but the bones of Johnny Dace as well. He chooses Lachicotte’s suggestion for both headstones: "May the earth lie lightly on thee." Explore the implications of this engraving and why it feels so right to Marcus. Does finding Johnny’s bones help Marcus on from the death of his mom?

11. Marcus grows up to become a child psychiatrist. In his studies, he is struck by the following passage: "The idea of a ghost, a disembodied spirit, derives from this lack of essential anchoring of the psyche in the soma, and the value of the ghost story lies in its drawing attention to the precariousness of the psychesoma existence" (282). Why is this  precariousness important? What does it teach Marcus about hischildhood self? In what other ways can a ghost story, with  its emphasis on the supernatural, teach us about human existence?

12. At the end of the novel, Marcus finally learns the truth about the man in his mother’s photo. Long thought to be a fake, the picture turned out to be a class photo of Wheezer’s notorious late Uncle Henry. What is the significance of this discovery? Discuss how Henry’s brilliant and disastrous life reflects on Marcus. The novel ends soon after this revelation. How do you imagine Marcus felt about learning the identity of his father and being related to his best friend all along?

13. Marcus and his elderly neighbor Carol Upchurch have a special bond over the loss of their loved ones. Ever since the death of her son, Coral Upchurch has been attempting to undergo an "archaeology of herself": "What would be left of the essential me without any of my roles?" (243) How does Marcus attempt his own "archaeology of self?" What are his roles throughout the novel and how to they evolve? He believes that love is the answer to the question of everyone’s essential role. Do you agree? Discuss all of roles you play in life; who do you become if your roles disappear?

14. "I realized that  below all our mes that become known to others is a self that nobody else can ever fully know. No self can ever share its entire being with another self, no matter how much love there is between them." (244) Even though Marcus makes strong connections with his island neighbors, his experience with the ghost of Johnny Dace is the most impactful. Is Marcus connecting to Johnny, or to himself? Do you agree with Coral? Explain why or why not.

15. Consider Marcus’s suicide attempt. Cutting Edge forces him to remember his thoughts the night his mother died. Faced with the reality that he had envisioned a better life without his mother, Marcus resents himself enough to end his own life. Discuss Marcus’s choice: was it fueled by insanity, insecurity, selflessness, or something else entirely? Earlier in the novel, Marcus admires Johnny’s ghost: "It’s all over for you. Your life is a complete thing. I envy that." (140) Why does Marcus envy Johnny? How does this novel challenge the idea that anyone’s life is every truly "complete"? How is this a pivotal moment for Marcus on his journey to forgiving himself?

(Questions developed by Zoe Gould for Bloomsbury USA, publishers.)


Book Summary

Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin


After his mother's death, eleven-year-old Marcus is sent to live on a small South Carolina island with his great aunt, a reclusive painter with a haunted past. Aunt Charlotte, otherwise a woman of few words, points out a ruined cottage, telling Marcus she had visited it regularly after she'd moved there thirty years ago because it matched the ruin of her own life. Eventually she was inspired to take up painting so she could capture its utter desolation.

The islanders call it "Grief Cottage," because a boy and his parents disappeared from it during a hurricane fifty years before. Their bodies were never found and the cottage has stood empty ever since. During his lonely hours while Aunt Charlotte is in her studio painting and keeping her demons at bay, Marcus visits the cottage daily, building up his courage by coming ever closer, even after the ghost of the boy who died seems to reveal himself. Full of curiosity and open to the unfamiliar and uncanny given the recent upending of his life, he courts the ghost boy, never certain whether the ghost is friendly or follows some sinister agenda.

An interview with the author

An interview with the author from April 4, 1986 regarding her approach to story telling.

Gail Godwin Speaks at the 2010 National Book Festival

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