GRIEF COTTAGE

Gail Godwin

The haunting tale of a desolate cottage, and the hair-thin junction between this life and the next, from bestselling National Book Award finalist 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.

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The haunting tale of a desolate cottage, and the hair-thin junction between this life and the next, from bestselling National Book Award finalist 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.

Grief Cottage is the best sort of ghost story, but it is far more than that—an investigation of grief, remorse, and the memories that haunt us. The power and beauty of this artful novel wash over the reader like the waves on a South Carolina beach.

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  • Bloomsbury USA
  • Hardcover
  • June 2017
  • 336 Pages
  • 9781632867049

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About Gail Godwin

Gail Godwin is a three-time National Book Award finalist and the bestselling author of more than a dozen critically acclaimed books, including Publishing, a memoir, and the novels Flora, Father Melancholy’s Daughter, and Evensong. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts grants for both fiction and libretto writing, and the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Woodstock, New York.

Author Website

Praise

“Godwin’s riveting and wise story of the slow coalescence of trust and love between a stoic artist and a grieving boy . . . subtly and insightfully explores different forms of haunting and vulnerability, strength and survival . . . Word will spread quickly about Godwin’s tender and spellbinding supernatural novel.”Booklist, starred review

“Godwin’s forceful prose captivates with the quiet, renewing power of a persistent tide.” –Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Marcus’ fascination with the ghostly presence of an adolescent boy, thought to have perished at Grief Cottage in a hurricane, allows Godwin to explore themes of loss, connection, and growth unfettered by the corporeal world.” –Kirkus Review

 

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 his childhood 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?

Excerpt

1.

Once there was a boy who lost his mother. He was eleven years, five months, four days—and would never know how many hours and minutes. The state troopers came to the apartment around midnight, but the accident had happened earlier. A part of him believed that if he had known the exact moment her car slid on a patch of black ice and somersaulted down the embankment, he could have sent her the strength to hold on. Please, Mom, you’re all I’ve got. And she would have heard him and held on. She had gone out to buy them a pizza. They were going to watch one of their favorite old movies on TV, the one where Alec Guinness and his band of thieves pretend to be musicians. They rent a room in a nice old lady’s house, shut the door, put a string quartet on the gramophone, and she is never the wiser. Before the movie is over, she is helping them move their stolen goods and she is still none the wiser. The star of this movie had special meaning to the mother and son because they had read an article about how Alec Guinness never knew who his father was because his mother had refused to tell him, but he had still grown up to be famous anyway.

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Aunt Charlotte was my mother’s aunt, which made her my great-aunt. I had only heard tales about her before I went to live with her. Even the tales weren’t much. She had run away from home early, married several times, and then gone to live by herself on an island. At some point she had taken up painting and had become a successful local artist. She wasn’t a letter writer but whenever Mom wrote to her she sent back a postcard with one of her paintings. I was always mentioned by name. Mom stuck the postcards up on the refrigerator, paintings of storm clouds over waves, orangey light on wet surf, a gloomy ruin of an old beach cottage. The paintings had names: Storm Approaching, Sunset Calm, Abandoned Cottage. My late grandmother had referred to her as “Crazy Charlotte,” or “my Bohemian baby sister.” She painted under the name of Charlotte Lee. “It could have been the name of one of her husbands,” Mom said. “Or maybe she chose it for herself.”

I did not get to Aunt Charlotte’s island until late spring. The wheels of the law had to turn first. A person from Social Services stayed with me the rest of that night and helped me pack my things. She asked about my next of kin and I showed her Mom’s life insurance policy. “We’ve got to get you a guardian ad litem quickly,” she said. “That’s someone who will be your voice in legal matters.” When I asked what legal matters, she said, “Determining who will be your permanent guardian and how your estate will be managed.” When I asked what estate, she said, “The estate from this insurance policy.” Our belongings from the apartment were put into storage and I was sent to live with a foster family and finished seventh grade from their address. I was a year ahead of my age because I had skipped  sixth grade. The boy I shared a room with in the foster home had had the left side of his face crushed by his stepfather while his mother was out at work. From his right profile he looked like a normal boy, but from the front and left it looked like his cheek had melted. There was much plastic surgery ahead. At night I could hear him whacking off under the covers.

I liked my guardian ad litem, William. He was the one who got me into the hospital morgue to see my mom and helped me decide on burial arrangements. William was so tall he had to stoop to get through ordinary doorways, and he wore a flowing dark beard. He could have been a stand-in for Abe Lincoln, though he had a shiny bald dome. He had grown up in the high mountains of western North Carolina and had a mountain twang so thick it sounded like it was making fun of itself.

The foster parents had Bible study for us every night. It was called “Parable Party,” and they made it a competitive game. Even the little kids could quote chapter and verse from the gospel parables and I soon became a whiz at it myself. I was a fast learner and a good memorizer and I enjoyed a mental challenge. Mom and I had read the King James Bible aloud to each other because she wanted me to be grounded in its stories and language. Sometimes we used it as our augur, opening it at random to see what we should do about something. But it didn’t take precedence over everything the way it did in the foster home.

Then one day I was told to pack my things. It was all set up legally and I was going on my first plane ride to live with my great-aunt at her beach cottage in South Carolina. “You are one lucky boy, Marcus,” the foster mom said. William stayed with me at the gate until I had a nametag hung around my neck and was escorted onboard by a flight attendant. William’s last words  to me were, “Live long and prosper,” and we gave each other the Spock hand-blessing from Star Trek.

Aunt Charlotte was waiting just on the other side of the security gate, a very thin lady in white slacks, loose white shirt, and scuffed brown sandals. She had stern, beaky features and a frosty mannish haircut. At that time she was fifty-seven, but she appeared elderly to me. Though she was my late grandmother’s younger sister by six years, she looked at least a generation older than that stylish, coiffed lady who had visited Mom and me several times. The flight attendant who had escorted me checked her papers. Then he handed me over and wished us good luck. I had steeled myself for a theatrical hug like the foster mother’s or some display of aunt-ish emotion, but she simply gave me a firm handshake and said, “Well, Marcus, here we are.”

While we waited for my suitcases down in baggage claim, she told me “my boxes” had arrived and were stored in her garage, to unpack when I was ready. It took me a minute to realize she meant Mom’s and my stuff from our apartment.

We went out into the suffocating heat and she had me heave the suitcases into the trunk of her old Mercedes sedan. The leather seats were boiling, but she said they would cool down in a minute. She wasn’t much of a talker. “Are you hungry? Do you like shrimp? We’ll go to a place where they serve all the shrimp you can eat.”

The shrimp were very small and fried in batter and I ate three helpings. There were also these sweet fried bread balls called hush puppies. Aunt Charlotte picked at her salad and had two glasses of red wine. The waitress kept urging me to go back and refill my plate. Her name was Donna, which was stitched on her uniform, and she smiled a lot. Her teasing-affectionate tone with me reminded me a little of Mom and I went back for  the third mostly to make her smile some more. Aunt Charlotte had not smiled once. Looking back on that first day, I realize she must have been as apprehensive as I was. I doubt if I smiled that day, either.

When I threw up in my aunt’s car, she pulled over. “No problem, the seats are leather and most of it’s on the rubber mat.” She set me up with an eight-ounce bottle of spritzer water, a roll of paper towels, and gallon of windshield wiper fluid from her trunk. It rained a lot during this season, she said, so she always carried reserves of wiper fluid. “I’d use the spritzer water for the front of your shirt and the wiper fluid for the rest.” Then she withdrew to the grassy embankment and appeared to be studying the traffic. Heat waves rose from the asphalt and made wavery squiggles around her thin white form. The good thing about the heat was that my shirt was dry before I even finished cleaning the car. When we were on the road again I apologized for the smell. “All I smell is wiper fluid,” she said.

After we crossed the causeway to the island, she stopped by a store with gas pumps in front and we bought some things for supper. The man at the counter told her the day’s shrimp catch had just come in, but she said, “My nephew has already had his fill of shrimp for the day.”