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Early one summer morning, Matthew Bishop kisses his still-sleeping wife Marissa, gets dressed and eases his truck through Milwaukee, bound for the highway. His wife, pregnant with their first child, has asked him to find the antique cradle taken years before by her mother Caroline when she abandoned Marissa, never to contact her daughter again. Soon to be a mother herself, Marissa now dreams of nothing else but bringing her baby home to the cradle she herself slept in. His wife does not know-does not want to know-where her mother lives, but Matt has an address for Caroline's sister near by and with any luck, he will be home in time for dinner.
Only as Matt tries to track down his wife's mother, he discovers that Caroline, upon leaving Marissa, has led a life increasingly plagued by impulse and irrationality, a mysterious life that grows more inexplicable with each new lead Matt gains, and door he enters. As hours turn into days and Caroline's trail takes Matt from Wisconsin to Minnesota, Illinois, and beyond in search of the cradle, Matt makes a discovery that will forever change Marissa's life, and faces a decision that will challenge everything he has ever known.
Elegant and astonishing, Patrick Somerville tells the story of one man's journey into the heart of marriage, parenthood, and what it means to be a family. Confirming the arrival of an exuberantly talented new writer, THE CRADLE is an uniquely imaginative debut novel that radiates with wisdom and wonder.
Reading Group Guide:
Patrick Somerville on the
origins of The Cradle
In the summer of 2007, I drove east from Chicago to Virginia on
my way to a monthlong residency at the Virginia Center for the
Creative Arts, where I planned to work on . . . something.
I’d made a few false starts with novels in the preceding years,
and I’d yet to really hit upon a kind of story, or way of storytelling,
that felt right. I had some stored- up ideas with some promise, but
no real plan about which one I’d work on. My simple hope was that
I’d fi gure out something and leave Virginia with chapters I could
work with through the fall. The only question was whether I could
deal with the looming, perhaps impossible, question of plot.
One hazy idea was simple, linear, and to be set in the contemporary
Midwest. Months before, I had written “person looking for
something” on a piece of paper, folded it, and put it in my pocket.
The paper was now gone, but it wasn’t forgotten. At the very least,
writing about this “person looking for something” seemed like it
could train me out of a bad tendency I could no longer deny was
a part of my fl edgling novel- writing skill set: I seemed to believe
“plot,” in terms of our contemporary literary novel, referred to a
labyrinthine sequence of events with little or no connection to
the shared reality of human beings. This was my own fault, really,
born more of my own anxiety than any opinions I had about other
writers or other books. So far, arbitrary craziness was my answer
to dealing with several hundred pages of text I simply didn’t
know how to write. Unfortunately, the problem with arbitrary
craziness — sorry, one of many problems — is that it guarantees
no reader will care about what comes next.
Looking back at the few scribbled outlines I made of novel
ideas from that time and earlier is like looking at outlines of the
small, detailed, and (sadly) postmodern mental breakdowns of
a frustrated apprentice. However, for whatever reason, going to
Virginia knocked some sense into me. “Person looking for something,”
it turns out, is more than enough for a whole novel’s plot,
even in our fractured 2009, and that’s basically the backbone of
The Cradle. The simple premise wasn’t an experiment in scaling
back at all, nor an exercise, but instead the heart of a straightforward
story, stripped down to make room for the characters to
roam with a bit more freedom, motivated by reasons that were
relatable, and important, not just audacious or absurd. The book’s
protagonist, Matt, keeps having to insist to people that things matter,
despite how unkempt and arbitrary the world usually appears.
I’m not sure how I felt about the subject when I began writing, but
by the time Matt was home again, and I was done with the book, I
got the feeling he’d been onto something from the start.
This essay was originally published in M. J. Rose’s blog Backstory on February 25, 2009.
Questions and topics
1. What does Matt mean when he tells Joe, “You’re free,” as they
eat breakfast in the diner?
2. In your opinion, what is the signifi cance of the cradle?
3. Renee’s story occurs more than a decade after Matt’s, and in
many ways the two characters exist in different worlds. How
are their respective quests similar? How are their journeys
4. Why does Marissa cry on her wedding day?
5. Why do you think Matt rips the showerhead out of the wall?
6. In the novel’s fi rst chapter, Marissa claims, “There are two
kinds of people in the world. There are people who understand
that everything matters and people who don’t understand that
everything matters” (page 6). What does she mean by this? Is
she serious? Use her statement as a way to think about the various
characters in the book.
7. How is writing poetry different for Renee than her work writing
children’s books? Why do you think she struggles so much with
the former, and how does that struggle change in the course
of the novel? How does Renee’s understanding of Walt Whitman’s
work play a role?
8. Matt comes to the realization that “the world never just happened
but rather was made by people, each and every aspect
of it” (page 157). How does this realization affect his sense of
9. Who was the character you most identifi ed with at the beginning
of the novel? Did that change by the conclusion of the
10. Why do you think that, following Matt’s return, Marissa never
again asked about the cradle?
The following is a list of books, in no particular order, that infl uenced
my work as a writer.
1. I, Claudius by Robert Graves
2. Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian
3. The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant
4. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
5. A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews
6. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
7. The Dog of the South by Charles Portis
8. Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis
9. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
10. A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan
11. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
12. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
13. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
14. The Hamlet by William Faulkner
15. Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner
16. In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway
17. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
18. Descent into Hell by Charles Williams
19. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
20. Slow Learner by Thomas Pynchon
21. V. by Thomas Pynchon
22. The World According to Garp by John Irving
23. Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
24. American Pastoral by Philip Roth
25. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
26. Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger
27. Catch- 22 by Joseph Heller
28. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
29. The Keep by Jennifer Egan
30. Music for Torching by A. M. Homes
31. Carpenter’s Gothic by William Gaddis
32. Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf
33. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
34. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
35. Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
36. The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever
37. The Wapshot Scandal by John Cheever
38. The Stories of John Cheever
39. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
40. A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor
41. Plainsong by Kent Haruf
42. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
43. The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith
44. The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
45. The Stranger by Albert Camus
46. White Noise by Don DeLillo
47. Dubliners by James Joyce
48. The Book of Daniel by E. L. Doctorow
49. The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald
50. Rock Springs by Richard Ford
51. You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon
52. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald