For Book Clubs 2017-06-21T14:27:56+00:00

Book Club Discussion Topics

Eden is utopia, a place of innocence, idyllic, most enjoyed by children. Ideals and paradise are, however, hard to hold on to. What happens when you cling to a place for too long, hide within its walls, expect too much?

The Garden of Eden is also an archetypal creation story. Eden is a creation story as well – it is all about babies being born!  The circumstances around a conception have consequences for the mother and father and baby for years to come.  Let’s say it sets the stage…

Sadie was sent to Banford. Becca was sent to the Willows and Rachel sent herself to Copper Hill. They all go for different reasons, but they each take a hiatus from society to deal with a problem: postpartum depression, pregnancy, alcoholism.

What about these ‘banishments’ from society?  Where has progress been made over the years and where has it stayed the same?   Clearly, Sadie and Becca lived during eras when their situation could not be discussed in polite company, nor, ironically enough, could they be discussed within the family. Were their retreats more for their sake or to protect their  social class from unseemly details.

Rachel, leaves in more modern times and attends a 12 step program.  It is her choice and her affliction is not exclusive to women, however, her departure echoes what happened to her mother and grandmother.

Eden illustrates how between only two or three generations in one family, so much can stay the same, while a great degree of change is imposed by the outside world.  In the years between 1920 and 2000, so much changed in the United States.  There were enormous industrial and technological advancements, economic shifts, and the impact of world wars. Eden shines a spotlight on the additional changes women faced.  My characters, women from the same family, have lives that span a century and experience extremely different education and career opportunities, and especially different choices when it came to their reproductive rights. Each mother wistfully observed the freedoms her daughter enjoyed.

The book’s earliest matriarch is Sadie. She is married and in search of effective birth control in the early part of the 20th century, inspired by the contraceptive pioneer, Margaret Sanger. She is not successful and has a late in life pregnancy that she is unhappy about. Her daughter, Becca, is raped, although given the era in which she lived, is not equipped with the awareness nor vocabulary to call it such, and becomes pregnant. The only option Sadie will consider for her daughter, is to send her away to a maternity hospital under a veil of secrecy. Becca’s daughter, Rachel, is impregnated by her college boyfriend, and Becca and Dan coerce the young couple to do the “honorable thing” and marry. And modern day, Sarah, with almost no societal pressure at all to worry about, entertains the option of being a single mother.

Allusions to the Bible are scattered throughout the novel to emphasizes that the same personal struggles described in the Book of Genesis carry on generation after generation, and indeed today.

The biblical allusions in Eden that are easiest to spot are names.  There’s the title for one, and the name of the family home, with its abundant gardens. The names of the women: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, are those of the Jewish matriarchs. Ruth is the dutiful daughter-in-law from the Book of Ruth, and Joseph and Benjamin are men from which future Jewish leaders are descended.

There is a  serpent who enter the ‘Garden’, offering temptation in the form of Charles and Maud Butterfield.  They attempt to seduce Bunny and Sadie away from their original intention of creating a space sacred for their family.

There is a flood that acts as a cleanse, almost an opportunity to start anew in the form of the 1938 Hurricane.  The day after the great storm, Becca sees a rainbow in the sky, and the following summer, when her family is all together, rebuilding their home, is the best ever.

Bunny is the preeminent patriarch of the family.  None of the men that follow after, can ever live up to him. But Bunny was in no means perfect, he was hemmed in by societal pressures as much as Sadie was. He felt pressure to send his beautiful wife away to the Banford Sanitarium, and although the question lurks as to whether he ever really understood where Becca had gone when she was sent away to the maternity hospital, he was limited by the proper boundaries a father must keep with his daughter. There were certain realms of life that a successful businessman just could not dare enter. The irony is that Bunny was not born into the society in which he ultimately found himself, he aspired to it, and sought opportunities to be accepted throughout his life.

The matriarchs in the novel did not amass the family’s great wealth nor were they responsible for constructing Eden, but Eden would not have existed without them. The women breathed life into the home. Just like the ebb and flow of the tides, and the cycles of the moon, life in Long Harbor and within the walls of Eden operated with a maternal rhythm.  Although Becca had little power in the commercial world, within her family and within her home she maintained control.

To name a person is a great honor.  It can be done as if offering a blessing, but it can also imply power or ownership. Giving a name is a venerable act, the first thing our parents give us, and in the Bible it is something GOD does repeatedly.

Characters in Eden are named and then re-named such as Bernhard becoming Bernard and later, Sadie dubbing him Bunny.

Bunny names their daughter Rebecca for his mother’s sister, while Sadie, who is displeased by the name, shortens it to Becca.

Bunny names their home Eden.

Rachel is persuaded to name her daughter Sarah, and Sarah, in turn, will name her baby for her mother.

The blessing that Becca reads at the end of the novel is a commentary on the various names a person takes on, the best, of course, being the one a person chooses for herself.

This conversation may or may not have actually happened. It is only something that Becca imagined. Sarah and Leah were each conceived out of wedlock, however Sarah’s parents married and Becca gave Leah up for adoption. The juxtaposition of these two upbringings and their respective emotional side effects is a primary theme of the novel.   It gets back to  Eden being a creation story,  and to portray the different paths a life might take as a consequence of parents’  choices.
Multi-generational living was much more common in the early part of the twentieth century. In summer enclaves like fictional Long Harbor, multi-generational living continues to this day. The novel needed to be set in a place where it would be believable for the generations of an upper class family to gather. Long Harbor needed to be an upperclass, small town, rife with gossip and a set of rules all its own.

A summer home tradition can be wonderful and bind a family together, but can also amplify a family’s dysfunction.  Adults often regress to childhood roles, as is the case with poor Rachel who loves Eden dearly even as it keeps her from moving on in her life.

The book is filled with the images of cycles: cycles of the seasons, the tides and the moon. The image of the full moon is present many times which emphasizes the close alignment between lunar power and feminine power.

There are also several storms in the book. There is the Hurricane of 1938, of course, which destroyed and tossed about all that man had built. Hurricane season returns at the end of the novel as Sarah’s baby is being born, however, the mood then is not of destruction, but of hope and renewal.  Both storms bring about an opportunity for cleansing and the chance to start anew.

Natural forces abound to remind the reader of the presence of Mother nature (the greatest mother of all) as well as the universality of our stories and our vulnerability.

Lilly is outside the family, while also being a dear part of the family. If it weren’t for her, the other women wouldn’t have time to play cards, go to the beach, read, or write.  There is an inference that their abundance of leisure time might lead to their communal dissatisfaction…   Being on the outside looking in, Lilly is somewhat like Ruth in that way. Outsiders often have the most interesting perspective on a situation. However, Lilly is quite biased and loyal to Becca, Rachel, and Sarah. Lilly is a beloved employee of the family and the fact that her relationship is so strong and longstanding with Becca also speaks to both of their characters.

Rachel makes the claim, “Lilly practically raised me.” Although it is very common for women in affluent families to have help with their children, it is interesting to consider the buffer they create between mothers and children.  Is it possible that Lilly’s presence (and Alice’s before her) may have prevented the all-important mother/child bond from fully forming?