Thursday, October 1, 2009

the solace of leaving early book discussion

Welcome, welcome, my dearies to The Creamery's first book discussion! Thank you for reading the book.

Here's how we're going to make this work. I'll be posting some questions below that will hopefully give us some good seeds for discussion. You have three choices for participating.

1. Pick a question for your response. In the comment form, cut and paste the original question (or at least part of it)- and then your response to it. Do the same for each question you'd like to respond to - or group them together in one comment, but still try to include the original question or some part of it so we all know what you're talking about.


2. Respond to someone else's response. That one's pretty self explanatory.


3. Post your own thoughts and questions, if they aren't already represented here.

Ultimately, please feel free to comment as many times as you want--- the more participation we have, the better this will go. I will pop in with my thoughts as well, of course--- we'll keep this going until end of day Sunday.

Please remember that everyone has an individual point of view, and should be valued as such. You're such a polite and kind group I doubt we'll have any problems with this, but it's still good to put out there. Please play nicely, kids. What makes me so excited about this little social Internet experiment we've got going here is that each of you are very different people, with very different opinions. I'm really excited to see what we all come up with.

... ... ... ... ...

Now on to The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel

There are a lot of secrets in the novel - those kept from the reader as well as those kept between characters themselves: Langston's reasons for leaving her PhD, Anna Lee's reasons for fearing her own mother, Alice's story, Taos, Beulah's secret of running away to circus college, the reason the girls wear the costumes. Kimmel gives these secrets time to unravel. Do you think this is a useful device or a distracting one? Why is it that secrets play such a strong role in the novel? Secret lives, the secrets we keep from the we love, the secrets that help us and harm us. Is Kimmel making a statement about secrets in a small town, or are secrets just a way that we live and communicate in our world at large?

What does it mean that Langston doesn't want to know how Alice died--do you think this helps her relationship with the girls?

Is it better to know the truth and act on it, or to live in blissful ignorance? Are there examples of people who live these ideals in the novel? Who?

Do Langston and the girls understand each other? Do they speak the same language? How?

Want does it mean to "minister" to people? Is Amos a good minister? What decides this? Do you think he considers himself to be a good minister?

How is it that Langston and Amos fall in love? DO they fall in love? When (if ever) does this take place?

Does Beulah "see" clearly? Is her insight due to the fact that, in reality, she is losing her actual vision? What does she see?

When Amos talks with Anna Lee in the hospital, he discovers that he has been underestimating her. What other examples of underestimating do we see in the novel? Does Langston underestimate anyone?

Are you satisfied that the visions the girls had of Mary weren't explained or even detailed? Do you think they continue to have these visions, even after they are living with Langston and Amos? What role did the visions play in the lives of those they touched (the girls, Langston, Amos, Beaulah, Anna Lee)?

There are a lot of mothers in the novel: Alice, Beulah, Anna Lee, Langston, Mary (of the visions), Grandma Wilkey. Do we see any father figures? What part does Walt play? Is Amos a father figure?

Have you ever left in the middle of something? A play, an educational experience, a concert? There are a lot of examples in the novel of leaving early--- Langston and Taos leaving the opera, Langston leaving her PhD program, Taos leaving town, Alice leaving the earth (so to speak). What is it about leaving something early that gives us such a feeling?

What is is about "seeing someone" truly? Amos finally sees Langston, Alice sees her future children in Jack's eyes.

What do you think about this idea of "ultimacy"? In a discussion of this book, the author Haven Kimmel is asked if she believes, like Amos, that people are living lives that are hopelessly broken and they know it. She says yes. Then goes on to say, "Let me put it this way. Many people who are living lives that are hopefully broken appear not to know it, because they confuse themselves with busyness or layers and layers of distraction. Think of women (and some men) who devote their lives to their children - to running them hither and yon, soccer and ballet and I don't know what all, and the cooking and the laundry, etc., - and their own inner lives make rare appearances. And then the children grow up and move away, and those women are left awake in the middle of the night, sleeping next to a man they now barely know (since their joint project has been taken away), heart's pounding, because it wasn't enough. Even Family fails to achieve Ultimacy. I guarantee you have either all heard, or will hear, the following statements as some times in your lives:
'I got everything I wanted, the money, the title, and it wasn't enough.'
'Weird how I thought everything depended on saving enough to buy that boat, and now that I have it, it isn't enough. I'm thinking of having my eyes done, just to get rid of some of these wrinkles.'
'I hate my husband.'
But I ask you honestly, have you ever, ever heard someone say, 'God simply wasn't enough,' or 'The Infinite has failed me again, so I might as well go back to drinking'? I never have." What do you think?


M said...

First, let me qualify the following comments. I didn't reread the book, I'm sorry. I just ran out of time, and well, I figured, since I've read it before it wouldn't be too big of a deal. Forgive me if I'm wrong in this assumption.

Secondly, I think that some of these questions are interconnected and that's what I wanted to talk about.

For example, you mentioned knowing the truth and the secrets that people keep. I think what you're really asking is whether or not people want to see reality, actuality, the truth of people's lives, or if they are content to see what they want to see and to not see the things that we don't want them to see (hence the secrets).

Secrets are not always scandalous, sometimes they are and sometimes they're incidental concealment--things that we don't think people will be interested in and so we don't readily confess them. And so we create a version of the truth about our lives that we present to others, not because they don't want to know the truth but because we doubt their capability for receiving it. I think that Langston hides what she hides because of her prejudice against her mother, her town, her peers. I don't think she has anything nefarious in mind, she just doesn't have any faith whatsoever in the people around her. Ironically, I think her mother does the exact same thing. She hides what she hides from Langston because she doubts the ability of her daughter to understand it.

I think that Haven Kimmel would say that it's better to strive for truth, to live worthy of truth from others, but to let people reveal truth to you in their own time. But I think she would also say that we should try to live our lives more openly.

M said...

I'm sorry to flood you with comments so early in the morning, but I have just a couple more points and then, I'm going to shower for the day.

I think that one of the interesting things that Haven Kimmel does in this novel is to redefine what it means to understand one another. I think too often, we assume that in order to understand someone we have to know "stuff" about them. I think that Kimmel is really complicating that and showing us that some kinds of understanding are beyond words, beyond explanations, beyond the limitations of humanity. I think that Langston understands the girls and the girls understand her and it has nothing to do with the things that they've experienced up to this point, it has nothing to do with the stories they might tell. It is IN them and through them and their ability to accept each other on every level.

That said, I don't think that I would say that Langston and Amos fall in "love" I think they come to an understanding of one another that isn't limited or confined by love. And in that understanding, they set each other free to be the truest and most complete version of themselves. Some people might call that love, but I find that most conversations about love are convoluted by other emotions like passion.

M said...

One last point and then I really am going to shower.

Are you satisfied that the visions the girls had of Mary weren't explained or even detailed? Do you think they continue to have these visions, even after they are living with Langston and Amos? What role did the visions play in the lives of those they touched?

I think what's significant about the visions is that these are girls who saw their mother die. And die in a horrible way. And then they begin to see visions of the Virgin Mother. They see a vision of what they most need, what they are most seeking. Which is why Kimmel doesn't waste too much time and energy on explaining or detailing them. It is enough to connect the loss of their own mother with the sight of the One Mother.

(my kid is flailing me with a copy of Mr. Kruger's Christmas, it's hard to think clearly when you're being flapped with a DVD.)

Anyway, I think that Kimmel uses the girls to show the value of allowing our minds to show us what we need most. I think we lose that as we get older. We forget to SEE. Which is a whole thematic undercurrent of the novel as a whole.

Ok. I've got to go, but I'll check back again later!

Whimsy said...

M said: “I think that Haven Kimmel would say that it's better to strive for truth, to live worthy of truth from others, but to let people reveal truth to you in their own time.” I love this – and I think she’s spot on. I also think that Langston is one of the best models of this sentiment. She has this unconscious compulsion to live as truthfully as possible, even as it grates those around her. The thing is, she does it without any end in mind, any final culminating moment to find someone who is “worthy” to receive the truth. Which makes her motivation for living the way she does that much more pure.

I’m writing this as Alice is running wild around the hotel room. I’m very distracted. Sorry if I’m not making sense.

Also: this is the second time I’m writing this response, since my first response was EATEN by my computer just as I was posting it. Ugh.

M is right about a lot of the questions being interconnected. I posted them separately because I like to discuss the little bits as much as the Big Lump.

About this idea of having an inherent connection to a person, an understanding without any knowledge of their background, their “secrets”: I agree that this happens, that it’s what draws us to people in our lives. But I also wonder if the final ties that connect us to these people who we have an inexplicable “understanding” comes when we finally do have a knowledge of their “secrets”. Case in point: when Amos (badly) reveals the details of Alice’s death to Langston, and she has a visceral, physical reaction to the knowledge – mirroring their own physical reactions to the experience, in a way. And again we see this when Anna Lee reveals the story of Taos and Langston to Amos in the hospital. It is after this reveal that Amos proposes to Langston.

Lastly, I love what M says about the visions of Mary. Brilliant!

M said...

I think that there's a difference though between understanding and empathy. I think you can have that primal comprehension of another human soul and THEN, as you come to know things about them, empathize with them for their loss or suffering.

Does that make sense? But I agree that empathy can liberate people to act in ways that understanding alone may inhibit.

This is the best conversation I've had in a looooooooong time. We shall not say how long for it would make me CRY.

Whimsy said...

I'm just so glad that I made even **some** sense. I'm writing in a ROOM OF CHAOS, with CNN going and Alice running amok, and Chip trying to read her a book, and and AND. It's just hard to concentrate.

With that said: I guess what I'm saying is that I agree that there can be an organic almost-cellular understanding of another person, but it isn't until you have that final reveal of that person's secret stories, their **context** that we can then finally say that we **know** the other person. As much as Langston has a connection to the girls (which isn't it funny - we can never really see them as two separate beings, but rather one whole with two parts), she isn't able to fully care for them, to **claim them** until she knows their story. What do you think?

(Also: YES great conversation. I know there are other people out there reading this - chime in, kids!)

M said...

AH, context! Well that makes perfect sense and I totally agree with that. And YES on the claiming them, and it is a very concrete moment when she shifts from merely being a care-giver to claiming them as HERS.

But then, I think that this is something that happens to all of us. There's a very real difference between the daily grind of taking care of your husband and child and home and CLAIMING them, declaring your territory, making them YOURS. You know? Or is this just me. It took a long time of caring for the Boy before I finally claimed him, and now? WOE to anyone who tries to come between us. But then, I think he also had to claim me. And this has been a very long digression, I shall be moving back to the subject now.

I love the chunk you quoted from Haven Kimmel about how people keep trying to fill up their lives and it's never enough, it never makes them happy. I think it's easier for most to grasp at tangible things--the money, the house, the car, the successful career--to try to achieve happiness, than it is to grasp intangibles--faith in God, selfless service, the Infinite as Kimmel would say. That's a whole lot of ethereal to try to wrap your life around. But I think she proves again and again in her books that the tangible world is just as insubstantial (though in different ways) as the spiritual world.

Whimsy said...

First: the context of knowing someone. I think it's a very intimate moment, when we reveal our context to someone else. On an unspoken level, we recognize it as a sacred crossover from surface to something else. And maybe it's when we begin to treat context as a given, as something **public**--- we lose our ability to see the human condition as something largely personal and specific. Like the whole town knows the girls' context, everyone except Langston. And because of that, their context is lost on the rest of the town--- it isn't a sacred crossover for the town, it is merely "public knowledge" and therefore it locks the town out of the experience of actually **knowing** the girls. This is even true, in many ways, for Amos and his relationship with the girls. THIS is why they don't like him! Whereas with Langston, this secret allows her to connect with them in a way that no one else can.

And yes, I love that quote from Haven. Just love it. And it's so true--- in her description of this theory of "ultimacy", I can actually understand it--- and that's huge because mostly religious theology and philosophy just goes way over my head.

M said...


That sound you just heard? It was you blowing my MIND. I had never thought of it in that way before, so well done. I guess my question is, how do we determine what is context and what is public knowledge? Is it different situationally? Personally? Does it change as time passes?

I know that people will think that none of this is pertinent to the discussion of the novel, but what's the point of reading anything if we don't come to understand ourselves and our fellow beings more fully through that reading?

Whimsy said...

You're very sweet! And I only got to that realization because of this conversation. Which leads me to this thought - I was just at breakfast with Chip and we were talking about this whole context thing. I wonder if this is why we try to force so much of the context these days: an attempt to force a connection, a **knowing** of a person, through knowing their context. Like the gathering of news these days, how everyone wants to know the "real" story, the "deeper" story, the secrets that a politician, a celebrity, a figure of interest, would rather be kept secret. By knowing these things about them, we don't actually "know" them --- we do the opposite, just like the rest of the town. We drive a wedge between us.

I'm not sure where the lines should be drawn to denote public versus private, what should be common knowledge to what should be respected as something sacred. I just don't know.

And yes, this is the whole point of discussing a novel, I think, even if it leads us into some wildly different ares of discussion.

Speaking of which, if anyone else wants to chime in, you don't have to say anything in response to what M and I have been discussing, if you don't feel like it. This is an open forum, just thought I'd let you know.

M said...


What did you think about Anna Lee?

Whimsy said...

I loved Anna Lee. She was very wise, and also very human. Wise in her understanding of Amos, her glimpses into some of Langston's quirks (yes, let's call them quirks). She's also unbelievably smart. But that smart streak fails her at times and leaves her a flawed human being: the way she is bullied and terrified by her own mother, the way she can't be around the girls (like backing out of taking them to the doctor - unless you think this is a calculated move on her part... hmm).

Anna Lee is so much more astute than I gave her credit for at the beginning of the novel, even at the middle of the novel.

In the end, I wonder if **I** as a reader, ever really saw Anna Lee. If Haven Kimmel ever really shows us Anna Lee as she appears in reality. We see her through Langston's eyes and she's this disheveled sort of **mess**. And in Amos' eyes, she's a **force to be reckoned with**, never once does he see her as a mess. We know that Grandma Wilkey sees her as one huge disappointment.

I wonder how Walt sees her. And how she sees herself.

M said...

That's how I felt! I never felt like I had a grasp on HER. Other people's perceptions of her, yes, but how she sees herself...the only glimpse I got was that one moment when she was with Langston and she said, "How could you possibly understand, you have been so loved?" It's the only time her real voice comes out and it's both sad and resentful and also objective and rational. It's strange. I found her a really interesting character, in some ways more so than Langston. But then, I related to Langston, I felt like I really understood her because I had lived a part of her life.

I was thinking about the title (I love thinking about titles because I feel like they're a glimpse into the author's psyche) and I don't know that I agree with the Solace of leaving Early. I think it's more the Solace of leaving on your own terms. At least that would apply to a variety of the characters (except for Alice), I'm not sure that any of them find solace in their choices, but they have the consolation of having made their choices on their terms and I think that provides them with a degree of peace.

I could totally be wrong.

serenity now said...

I'm jumping in here briefly because this book speaks to my soul, and I've been wanting very much to discuss it with other thoughtful, intelligent souls for some months now.

Love what's been said so far, and I may comment on some or all of it later.

Thank you for discussing the title which has bothered me since I first read the book. I quite agree with M about the book showing more about the solace of leaving on your own terms. Maybe the title is meant to be ironic in this way, but there are several examples in the book of how it doesn't always bring solace to leave early. I don't know that Langston wanted to leave the opera early although she appreciated the opportunity to do it (and would have gone anywhere if Taos wanted to and would let her come). And, as M mentions, no solace for Alice in leaving early. And there's certainly no solace for those who are left when people leave early--for Grandma Wilkey when her son, husband, and grandson leave early; for the Bravermans when Taos leaves early; or for Amos, Beulah, the girls, etc. when Alice leaves early. And Langston walked out of her orals specifically so those left behind wouldn't have solace, so to speak. I hope I'm making sense here. She was leaving on her own terms.

From a personal perspective, I feel more solace when I leave on my own terms than when I simply leave early. Sometimes the leaving early is on my own terms and sometimes it's not.

Whimsy said...

I've been thinking about what both of you have said about leaving early... and I think you're right, that there is solace in leaving on your own terms and we see some degrees of that in many of the characters. I also love how Serenity Now points out that sometimes we leave early to specifically REVOKE the solace from those left behind. In fact, there are just as many examples of that in the novel as the converse experience.

I also keep coming back to the notion about Anna Lee. When I closed the book cover I had a vague sense (at least) that I knew Anna Lee - but now, in retrospect, I'm not sure I can say that at all. Do you think she was a good mother? Not just to Taos (which I'm sure we'd argue that she was NOT a good mother to him) - but to Langston as well? She didn't protect Taos enough. And she protected Langston too much.

angelalois said...

I feel late to the game! I want to reply to some of the things that have been said:

1. Whimsy's question: "Kimmel gives these secrets time to unravel. Do you think this is a useful device or a distracting one?" I think this is a useful tactic for the same reason I am still watching Lost. It makes me ABSOLUTELY CRAZY to have these glimpses of things but not know what is going on, yet it hooks me. The same happens here, I think.

2. The discussion of context and claiming people, per Whimsy: "As much as Langston has a connection to the girls, she isn't able to fully care for them, to **claim them** until she knows their story." I am reminded of Whimsy's comment earlier in the blog (couple weeks ago) where she said "Isn't Langston driving you crazy and making you want to throw the book across the room?" YES! What are Langston's redeeming qualities if she can't respect or love or care for anyone without knowing THEIR ENTIRE STORY? That's just the thing. What does it say about her, or any of us, where we don't care or we won't claim or own or commit until we know everything and then feel compelled to? Aren't we better people if we DO love the strangers? So I don't know if I agree... maybe that context is needed to fully love someone, but aren't we better off if we don't need it? And doesn't that make Langston a serious snob?

3. Lastly, re: the book title. When I finished the book, I 100% thought it was about Alice and the solace of leaving early, AKA dying before your time. I'd never thought of it in terms of the opera, Taos skipping down, not finishing the PhD, etc. So that insight is interesting. I guess I always equate the term "solace" to what is needed at "funerals" and thought it was about death only -- but it seems it's not the case.

OK that's all for now ;-)

Whimsy said...

Hey there Angela! I think I should clarify about my Langston comment-- what I meant about her not being able to claim the girls as her own until she knew their story was more a statement of entering into a new level in their relationship, a deeper level. I think she is one of the only characters in the novel who actually cares for the girls, who sees them as people and not just wounded creatures... she has a clearer vision of them and is much less prejudiced by their circumstances than any other character in the novel. In fact, I LOVE her for how she loves the girls, without a single bit of information about their history. However. She isn't able to claim them as her own until she does understand what they've been through. It's like this in our friendships as well, I think - that we can love and adore someone without knowing their history, their secrets. But it's only after those moments of shedding some of our pretenses and telling our histories that we really can claim someone as a member of our "family".

The reason why Langston can be so frustrating, I think, is that I don't think she can look at her small town life ironically --- this is something Amos talks to Anna Lee about, that once you are aware of your situation, the only way to survive it is to look at it ironically, which then separates you from your situation altogether. A paradox. I think that Langston, in the early parts of the novel, is incapable of this type of awareness.

Also! Also also! Langston **changes**, and is aware of her changes at the end of the novel. The introduction explains that Langston changes because of the girls. I think it has to do with her ability to love and care for these wounded souls - to reach them and talk to them through their wounds, and to, in turn, also love Amos. This makes her change, and grow.

angelalois said...

I suppose what you are saying is true and makes sense... it's just so interesting how AnnaLee had to TWIST HER ARM to get her to just watch the girls, not even get to know them or care about them. Not like she was doing ANYTHING ELSE productive, but doing a little part-time babysitting was so unbearably awful. It's just bizarre, and I'm not sure if she's just self-centered or not able to SEE how "hypocritical" (aka paradoxical, right?) she was, or what.

To me, it seemed like Langston accepted the girls for who they were and didn't question the whole Mary-in-the-tree thing because they were children, and they couldn't be expected to "think on a higher plane," like Langston was so capable of thinking (and presumably everyone else in the town, although they didn't do it). It was like, she chose not to judge them, but she judges everyone else. The girls did help her to be better, but I think it was luck (and/or incredible insight on AnnaLee's part) that Langston was forced into the situation to become a better person.

So does it teach us that we all have flaws and sometimes someone else knows what's best for us, and wisely can "force" us into uncomfortable situations that then make us better? Even if we go kicking and screaming? Or is the lesson that we should all get over ourselves and be able to see the situation for what it is on our own? Or is it both?

serenity now said...

I'll risk being the oddball here and say I loved Langston's character from the beginning. There was something about the bits and pieces we knew about her in the beginning that smacked of a lost soul to me, someone who was suffering in terrible ways and couldn't find the comfort she needed. So, she seemed selfish and critical and all the rest. Pretty human, I'd say. I love that in this book--it's so human, so genuine. Love that in a book--and in real life.

One way to perhaps see Langston's character is to consider that she starts out in the book acting like a teenager--self-focused, critical of parents, convinced she has the answers and doesn't need to look to others for help, connection, etc. As events unfold, some of those qualities about her serve her well. They help her to connect on that deep, "claiming" level with Immaculata and Epiphany, for example. And then, as things progress further, she, in essence, grows up. It's as if while she's spending time with Immaculata and Epiphany, the three of them are helping to heal each other of the various wounds they carry because of the connections among them.

As to why Langston would still be stuck in teenager mode is also an interesting question. The trauma of Taos stopped her emotional progression?

Whimsy said...

You aren't the odd man out, Serenity Now. I really loved Langston, even as some of her behavior to her parents drove me batty. But I still felt like I understood her. Probably because I feel like I've been there - she had that desperate torturous feeling that no circumstance under the sun would allow her parents to understand the depth of her pain. I think that's what it was... she had all this pain and shame and horror over her experience and didn't think that her folks, or anyone, could understand it. Somehow in caring for Immaculata and Epiphany she loses some of that pain. I'm not sure if I can explain why... is it as simple as forgetting ourselves and getting to work?... I don't know.

I do want to add something else, here, since we're talking so much about Langston and her ways. In the same discussion that I quoted in an earlier comment, Haven Kimmel talked about writing the book, and the moments that touched her the most. She went on to say that up to the point when Langston meets the sisters, you wonder about her - if she's as smart as she thinks she is, if she's as well-spoken and sort of "higher" as she thinks she is. Then you hear what she says to the sisters in the sandbox, how she speaks to them without talking down to them even a single bit. How she takes everything they say at their word and doesn't question or make them feel silly or dumb. It's beautiful. (I want to be able to talk to children in this way - I think it's fantastic.) Haven says, and that's when you actually realize that Langston really IS as smart as she thinks, she really IS this higher person.

M said...

Forgive me if this is harsh, but Angela, you're way off base.

First of all, putting the pieces of your life back together again is ALWAYS productive, and how ever an individual has to go about doing that is how they have to go about doing it. Who are we to judge them? I think she was able to accept the children because they accepted her. They didn't question her, they didn't try to pry, she was who she was and they were able to be who they were in that moment and in that sense, they understood one another.

I find it strange that you're so critical of her. She's HUMAN. Flawed, yes, but human all the same. The things that drive us crazy about her are likely the things that drive us crazy in others--even others that we love, but to condemn her for them is to condemn ourselves for, if not the same weaknesses, then very similar ones.

I think the lesson is that healing often causes as much discomfort as the initial wound. It's a powerful reminder not to underestimate the power of children in the lives of adults--something that we all do all the time. We think, as adults, that we're so much wiser, that we understand so fully and know so well and the REALITY is that we know NOTHING. We've forgotten how to SEE--the world around us as well as the things that we really need. Those girls teach Langston that and it's something you can't learn in books or in a classroom or even from other adults.

Whimsy said...

I'm curious about your thoughts on Amos. What do you guys think about him? Do we understand Amos?

Erin P said...

Wow, what a great discussion so far! I don't know where to start. I thought Langston was very well written...she arrives home with all of her secrets (everything is secret to us, so we slowly begin to see her as she is revealed). She has borne so many hurts--being ignored by her mother, Taos' disintegration and disappearance, her lover's cruel ending of the relationship, and then losing/giving up her dreams when she leaves her oral exams. She is highly educated, and disappointed yet again when she returns to her small town. I think she's doing the best she can to reassemble her life and is trying to figure that out for the beginning of the book. Her reaction to her mother forcing her to watch the girls seems like her response to (a) anything her mother suggests and (b) feeling so wounded and depressed she doesn't want to do anything at all.

I agree with the discussion about Langston "claiming" the girls as her own; I never thought of it that way. I think that her initial ignorance of what happened was critical because it made HER the only one in the entire town who didn't shrink with horror at the idea of interacting with them. She treats them like people, and is clearly the only one who does...and this is only possible by her ignorance. I think that finding a new purpose (watching the girls) and finding a place as she worked together with Anna Lee and Amos and Bulah to take care of them was really her salvation.

I felt that after Anna Lee tells the story of Taos to Amos, we do know her. She reveals her love, her history with her mother, how Taos came to be what he was, and her mistakes with both children. I felt overwhelmed by her revelations to Amos. Why did she do what she did with Taos? Was it her own mother's fault?

Lastly (for now), I think Amos' story shows growth...he started pastoring with an inaccurate image of what a pastor does, and through his work, he learned to care for all of the people at the former church; he sees the needs in the book and works to help. Langston gets to him, makes him think, and forces him to grow more. And, I do think they fell in love...after the wedding, before the end of the book at some point.

Thanks for the great discussion!

serenity now said...

I agree with what Angela said about Amos' story showing growth. But I got lost in a lot of the religious philosophy allusions and kept wishing I had read these same books and knew what he was talking/thinking about more. Also, I'm a little vague about what Amos didn't like about his father. Did he not like the tidy way his father seemed to categorize life? Did he see his father as being blind to the problem of Ultimacy? Interesting that he still chose the same vocation as his father.

Swistle said...

First I'm going to do the option of answering some of the questions you list. Then I'm going to do the option of reading other people's answers and maybe talking about those.

Q: Kimmel gives these secrets time to unravel. Do you think this is a useful device or a distracting one?
A: I found it maddening. I felt like I couldn't concentrate on the plot because I had to keep track of so many CLUES for so many elements of the plot. And the clues started out SO OBSCURE---like, a clue about Taos before we even knew that he was Langston's brother. ARG! On the other hand, this kind of thing keeps the plot tension high, so once we had enough of the secrets to at least know WHAT WAS SECRET, I liked it.

Q: Do Langston and the girls understand each other? Do they speak the same language? How?
A: I think Langston's matter-of-fact, direct approach must be similar to the way Alice spoke, based on Amos's descriptions of her matter-of-factness and directness.

Q: How is it that Langston and Amos fall in love? DO they fall in love? When (if ever) does this take place?
A: I think they fall in love after they get married. But I think they CONNECT before that in a love-like way that luckily turns into the real thing. I think they're both HIGHLY introspective and thinky people and they recognize/appreciate this in each other (Amos is frustrated with fellow seminary students, and doesn't Langston at one point say she should have gone to seminary because she has so many religious questions and no one will talk to her? or am I confusing this with another book?), and they bond over this recognition and over their mutual care of the girls and grief over the girls' situation. Also, they had two Romance Novel "proofs" that they were right for each other: (1) their initial intense dislike/infuriation, and (2) the way they "call" each other on each other's inconsistencies and mistakes.

Q: When Amos talks with AnnaLee in the hospital, he discovers that he has been underestimating her. What other examples of underestimating do we see in the novel? Does Langston underestimate anyone?
A: Langston underestimates just about EVERYONE: her mom, Amos, Alice, her own ability to cope and find a fulfilling existence on a small scale. She overestimates Taos and the guy she dates for 16 months who breaks her heart, which I think was her mom's point about WHY Langston now underestimates everyone.

(to be cont.)

Swistle said...


Q: Are you satisfied that the visions the girls had of Mary weren't explained or even detailed? Do you think they continue to have these visions, even after they are living with Langston and Amos?
A: No, I wanted more explanation of the visions, although I guess I was willing to take the "this is all from their time with Aunt Gail, and heaven knows what happened then"---but...couldn't we have known a little more about what happened then? And I think they stopped the visions around the time they changed their clothes (they're wearing school uniforms at the end).

Q: Have you ever left in the middle of something? A play, an educational experience, a concert? There are a lot of examples in the novel of leaving early--- Langston and Taos leaving the opera, Langston leaving her PhD program, Taos leaving town, Alice leaving the earth (so to speak). What is it about leaving something early that gives us such a feeling?
A: I've only once or twice left something early---once it was a History final exam, which I consequently flunked. I generally err on the side of NOT leaving when I SHOULD have: movies that were too scary, relationships that were OVER, etc. I think the feeling of leaving early is a mix of "not suffering the rest" and "wondering what would have happened if we'd stayed."

Q: What do you think about this idea of "ultimacy"? In a discussion of this book, the author Haven Kimmel is asked if she believes, like Amos, that people are living lives that are hopelessly broken and they know it. She says yes. [snip] What do you think?
A: I read this part again and again but didn't really understand it. Pursue...the infinite? What does that MEAN, practically speaking? Like, what would I be doing, if I were doing that? And also, I DO think people say God is not enough for them, again and again, when they leave religion.

Swistle said...

About the title---I think it's because "leaving early" IS the only time you can leave on your own terms: it's either early, or it's getting kicked out at the end. There isn't any such thing in this analogy as "leaving late."

About Langston not being able to claim the girls until she knows their story: I thought it was more that she couldn't claim them until she she could literally CLAIM THEM---that is, TAKE them and put them into the family she makes with Amos. She can't love them for reals until she knows she can KEEP them. She learned from Taos and that scholar guy that loving someone means squat if they're not with you. It also reminds me of the way adoptive parents feel before the adoption is final: the baby isn't theirs; they shouldn't get too attached. Only even MORE so, because Langston has NO IDEA she even has the POSSIBILITY of those girls in her future. She thinks she's their babysitter, so why WOULD she claim them?

About Langston's annoyingness: I didn't find her annoying, I found her hilarious and a sympathetic character. She doesn't fit in ANYWHERE---and it's not that she makes herself that way, it's that she IS that way. She doesn't want to babysit or work at the grocery store because that's a million light years from her niche. She's been a little spoiled, and she's been affected by her years and years in The Educational Institution World, but the way she first refuses and then complies (going to the funeral, taking care of the children and doing a really good job at it too, even though she didn't enjoy all of it) made me feel affectionate toward her. She WANTS to fit in, but keeps thinking it's not going to WORK so she shouldn't even TRY. The life she THINKS she'll fit into (the little cottage, the academics) is so so different from what she's currently backed herself into by leaving early. (And worse: she strongly suspects that her Ideal Life wasn't going to work out, either---which I think is one of the reasons she leaves before her suspicions are confirmed and she has to face how much time and effort she's wasted trying to get there.)

Swistle said...

Another issue: I felt like Langston changed TOO SUDDENLY AND FULLY at the end. Like, she goes from being this highly-strung sensitive misfit to being...a languid, relaxed, perfectly content person? Overnight? After a good cry? I realize she doesn't really transform that fast, probably, but it FEELS like it. I liked their new family, but would have liked to see some evidence that she and Amos still SPARRED like they did before but that things still worked even so. As it was, I felt like maybe they were just in a honeymoon phase and things might go dramatically downhill when that wore off.

Swistle said...

Another issue: I felt like the book was a REALLY SLOW STARTER. The first couple of dozen pages couldn't really be skimmed, and yet they were basically a pastor writing a sermon on topics wayyyyyyy beyond the typical level of theological inquiry, interspersed with little references that made no sense yet. It was hard for me to get to the Good Part (I forget, but it seems like it was about 30 pages in), and I persevered only because I KNOW I love Haven Kimmel's books. I feel like I'd have to make a big deal about this before recommending the book to anyone, like "DON'T worry if you don't get into it at first! It's not ALL about seminary!"

Swistle said...

A favorite part: where Langston shifts from "my mom can plan the whole wedding" to planning it herself. The dress she designs, to match the girls' gowns---it makes Amos fully commit to her, and it really made me think they were going to work out, too.

angelalois said...

Hi everyone! Fun comments today.

I really don't think I'm way off base about saying Langston is snobbish, but I DO think serenity now said it better when she said she is very TEENAGER-ISH. YES! I absolutely agree. THAT is what it is. She hasn't grown up yet, she thinks she's right, her parents know squat, etc.

I also think that yes, everyone is human, but that doesn't mean I have to be accepting of character traits that I dislike, like being an annoying teenager. I was an annoying teenager, and I look back and just think, how did anyone put up with me? So maybe I am condemning her AND condemning myself, because I lived it, too! But I guess to me, life is about the process of improving, and I agree with Swistle that the process of "growing up" here was too abrupt to make sense to me.

Sidenote, I think it's funny when you watch the DVD extras of a movie with some pretty shady characters and the actors and actresses are all like, "I love playing someone who is flawed." I just don't get it. I'd much rather be a character that had all sorts of redeeming qualities. I guess that's just me, maybe I'm too much of a perfectionist and expect it out of myself (and others, evidently).

I also really liked what Swistle said about Langston not claiming the girls until she knew they were HERs, seeing as how the boyfriend and brother left. Makes all sorts of sense.

AND. I also don't quite know how they "fell in love." I remember at the end of the book thinking, "there's no way! I chose after significant courtship the one *I* married and we have a heck of a time making it work most of the time." Marriage is tough. Kids make it even tougher. I'm not sure some infatuation/tension/common goal is enough for lasting happiness.

angelalois said...

and, making sure credit goes where credit is due: serenity now meant to reference Erin P's comment about Amos, not mine....

angelalois said...

AND one more thing. Can someone please explain to me the oral sex reference? Was it just to be funny? Since "secrets" in the book were revealed one by one I thought it was for real.. but it never came up again so yeah. I don't get it.

wandering nana said...

I'm still reading and started to read everyone's comments but then quit so I can finish the book without knowing what happens. Sorry, I'll try harder on the next book to have it done but I am enjoying this one.

serenity now said...

First off, apologies to Angela and Erin P. for not giving proper credit re: Amos' growth. That's what I get for trying to comment quickly, I guess. Thanks for setting me straight, Angela.

If I remember right, the oral sex reference was when Langston was in the diner and overheard a couple of guys talking in vague terms about a guy and girl and one of the guys asked the other something like "would you have done it?" I think the two guys were talking about Alice and Jack killing each other. But Langston, not knowing at the time how Alice died, thought they were talking about Pres. Clinton and Monica Lewinsky--current events at the time the story was supposed to take place. Someone please set me straight if there's a better explanation than that.

Heidi said...

Wow that is alot to catch up on! I also loved Langstons character although I was also annoyed at how she treated her mother and was always crying and stomping her feet as if to say "but momma I don't wanna." To me it seemed everyone in the book was underestimating her. They thought the idea of her coming home to write a novel was ridiculous and that she'd never accomplish it. They treated her like she was a child and couldn't make up her own mind. This is why I think she acted like one and also why she got along so well with the girls. It drove me crazy that Langston wouldn't listen to how Alice died. But I think it was essential to the story. The reason I say it was essential is because I think Langston saw the girls differently than everyone else did. She saw them as individuals. She didn't question the fact of the visions. She took them for who they were just as they took Langston for who she was I think she came to love and "claim" them as her own gradually. By that I mean simply that when Langston first came home she was like a little child. She was alone and scared and very unhappy. I think the girls gave her a sense of purpose and she "grew up" in a sense along with them just in her own way. I think they helped eachother heal and came to love eachother and accepted one another. I have a hard time believing that Langston would have changed her feelings towards the girls or not claimed them or loved the girls any less if she had never found out the way Alice died. I think you can still love someone and claim them into your family without understanding every piece of information that they have or don't have to give to you.

I think the title has everything to do with Alice. I think Alice knew her husband would come for her. She knew she would die and what's sad is she knew that he wouldn't just stop with her; but that he would go after the girls as well. This is why I think she took "Solace in Leaving Early." She knew she had to protect her children and was ready for him when he came to the house. She knew when it was all over her children would be safe. Whether she thought about emotional scars I don't know but I think she knew she would die and she was prepared for it. She loved her girls that much.

angelalois said...

Heidi, I like what you said about not needing to KNOW everything in order to claim or love someone; I think that's true. Heck, Langston agreed to marry Amos and knew squat about him! And I think about couples out there with all sorts of crazy pasts and when they get together they simply say, "it's your past, your mistakes, you don't have to tell me if you don't want to." A lot of people have relationships based on that faith alone. So I think you're right.

Whimsy said...

It's true that you don't need to know everything about a person in order to love them --- I think some of the original thought is being lost here. What I was saying about Langston (and about people in general, I think) is that there is a vital connection, a very important transformation of a relationship when secrets are revealed. One of the original examples I mentioned was with Amos. He doesn't propose to Langston until parts of her story are revealed to him in the hospital by Anna Lee. Now, we could argue that Amos loves Langston before these moments. He loves her when he sees her reaction to the true story of Alice's death. He loves her when she runs through glass, feet bleeding, to bring him back to Beulah's when she collapses. He loves her and only knows these little bits of her, but he loves her just the same. However. When Anna Lee reveals parts of Langston's story to him --- doing so through Taos' story --- this is when Amos is able to claim Langston and ask her to marry him.

I understand what y'all are saying about loving something without knowing their deepest/darkest. I do understand, but what I'm saying is that there is a transference, a progression, a living and breathing bond that grows out of sharing your warts and your darkness, the sad stories and things that have made you who you are. It doesn't happen in every relationship or friendship (and for that I'm pretty sorry, actually), but when it does, when some of the facade is shed and we can look at someone with the knowledge that they know something about us that has etched itself into our very soul.... it is fantastic.

angelalois said...

And very very personal. Well said, Whimsy. AND I think you're right that this theme is quite apparent in this story.

Heidi said...

I agree Whimsy. And thanks Angelalois! Yes I would most definately participate in a book discussion again.

Alicia @ bethsix said...

Finally, I am here to turn this mutha out.

I finished reading Solace just seven short weeks after our deadline, and already the discussion has ended. Underachievers.

I'm going to try responding to a couple questions and then going through and seeing if I want to say anything more about others' comments.

Do Langston and the girls understand each other? Do they speak the same language? How?

They speak the same language in that they've all been damaged (by the same experiences that have led them together). Langston understands the girls more than anyone else, and I think we're right to say that they this has something to do with her ignorance of their past. When she finally accepts that she's going to be their "babysitter," she walks right up to them and treats them not like fragile dolls but like the children they are. She believes their visions. She doesn't talk down to them. Her first interaction with them is very dear, very tender, for this reason.

How is it that Langston and Amos fall in love? DO they fall in love? When (if ever) does this take place?

We see it coming from the very beginning precisely because of those interactions someone mentioned (?) in which there is this tension, this dislike, between them. But it bothered me that this wasn't developed further. The end really jumped out of nowhere and hit me in the face. I think Amos truly falls in love with Langston at the altar, when she walks in wearing the gown she had made. I'm not sure about Langston. She seems like such a wounded bird of a soul. By the end, I think it's clear she fell in love with him (she kisses him on the chest), but I'm not sure when. It makes sense to me, though, because I always felt that Langston's hard exterior masked a lot of really defeated, depressed feelings. I felt like, as counterintuitive as it seemed from her character, she is a type to fall in love fast and hard, with the right person.

Alicia @ bethsix said...

Comments Part Deux.

Agreed with M on Whimsy's comment about the crossover from surface to true understanding of a person.

I too underestimated AnnaLee at first, but I think that was something in the writing. There was a point at which Haven Kimmel "revealed" AnnaLee as this person she hadn't been earlier in the book, someone that had this insight and knowledge that you never knew she had. I wondered along the way if some of the things she did weren't calculated moves on her part to engineer these relationships between Langston and the girls and between Langston and Amos, but that was never fully developed or made clear for me. When I started to see AnnaLee in this new light, she actually reminded me a lot of Alice.

Agree with Serenity Now on liking Langston from the beginning and seeing her as a lost soul. Yes, she was annoying but she was annoying in a very real, very human way.

Agree with M on Langston's acceptance of the girls and their visions. I think she truly believed them and accepted them as they were because, well, why shouldn't she? And the point about her accepting them as they'd accepted her, all three of them flawed, is a good one.

Agree with Swistle that Langston changed too suddenly and fully at the end. "Like, she goes from being this highly-strung sensitive misfit to being...a languid, relaxed, perfectly content person? Overnight? After a good cry? I realize she doesn't really transform that fast, probably, but it FEELS like it." Exactly.

Also agree with Swistle on the slow start. I read the first half over, I don't know, 8 weeks, and I read the second half yesterday. It wasn't that the first half was bad - it wasn't - but it was very slow to start and suck me in.

I don't think Alice knew her husband would come after her. I don't think even HE knew he would come after her. Up until a few days before it happened, he was still delusional and convinced she'd come back to him. I don't think there's any evidence to suggest that he would've gone after the girls either. And I don't get loving your children "that much" to essentially kill their father and sacrifice your own life. I don't think the murder-suicide had anything to do with the girls. If it had, I don't think it wouldn't have happened.

TOTALLY agree with Whimsy on being sorry that sharing our sadness/darkness/warts doesn't happen in every relationship/friendship. I'd give anything to be this close to more people in my life, to have the implicit trust that comes with a relationship like this.

Fin. :)