SO MANY WAYS TO BEGIN

Jon McGregor

David Carter is an obsessive collector, and the curator of the local history museum. In addition to overseeing the community’s archives, he has, since boyhood, diligently archived the items that tell his own life story: birth certificate, school report cards, movie and train tickets. But when a senile relative lets slip a long-buried family secret, David is forced to consider that his whole carefully cataloged life may be constructed around a lie. In fits and starts, his world begins to unravel.

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David Carter is an obsessive collector, and the curator of the local history museum. In addition to overseeing the community’s archives, he has, since boyhood, diligently archived the items that tell his own life story: birth certificate, school report cards, movie and train tickets. But when a senile relative lets slip a long-buried family secret, David is forced to consider that his whole carefully cataloged life may be constructed around a lie. In fits and starts, his world begins to unravel.

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  • Bloomsbury USA
  • Paperback
  • December 2010
  • 384 Pages
  • 9781596914858

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About Jon McGregor

Jon McGregor lives in Nottingham, England. His first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Times Young Writer Award, and won the Betty Trask Prize and the Somerset Maugham Awards. So Many Ways to Begin was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His most recent novel is Even the Dogs.

Praise

“Jon McGregor might be the best chronicler I know of the way small accidents can set a life in motion, and the way what’s said between people—or left unsaid—can change everything. This is a beautiful book, elegant and particular and heart wrenching. I loved it.”—Maile Meloy, author of Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It

“McGregor is a brilliant prose stylist, and here he excels at making … the ordinary seem extraordinary.”—Sunday Times (UK )

“A close reading of ordinary lives, a tender and often beautifully poetic rendering of the unremarkable.”
Stephanie Merrit, The Observer

Discussion Questions

So Many Ways to Begin opens with a prologue about Mary Friel’s ill-fated journey from Ireland to Hampstead. How does this prologue set the scene for the novel to come? What does Mary Friel’s story reveal about David Carter’s story, and what does it conceal?

The novel’s chapters are organized by artifacts within David’s collection. How do these artifacts shape the story of David’s life? Which of these relics gives the fullest picture of a stage of David’s life? To whom does David imagine telling his story through these objects?

Consider the relationship between David and Dorothy. Why does Dorothy insist to Julia that when David was a baby, “I couldn’t take my eyes off him; I couldn’t put him down for more than a minute” (31)? When Dorothy explains in her letter to David, “I chose to keep you” (343), how does that clarify her feelings for him? What pieces of their shared history has David neglected in his search for family?

Discuss David’s lifelong fascination with collecting and curating objects. Why is he drawn to objects that say, “This is some small piece of where I began” (34)? How does David’s urge to collect relate to the uncertainty of his origins?

Consider the setting of the novel: Coventry, England, from 1943 to 2000. How does Coventry look and feel in the novel? How does the town grow and change in David’s lifetime?

As Aunt Julia teaches young David to dance, she reminisces about her brief marriage to Major William Pearson during World War II. Why does Julia describe her courtship and marriage as taking place over a single dance? What does Julia’s story imply about the workings of memory and mourning?

“I’m going to be a geologist,” Eleanor tells David when they meet (68). How do Eleanor’s career aspirations compare to David’s? Where do their areas of study overlap and diverge?

Julia, Dorothy, and David all cope with romances fraught with separations, whether due to war, death, or distant borders. How does each character handle a long-distance romance? Which love stories turn out well, and which are doomed to sadness?

Discuss the scene in which Aunt Julia tells David the story of his birth. How does the secret come to light? How does David handle this moment of revelation, and how does Dorothy? What regrets do David and Dorothy express when the truth comes out, and how do they eventually reconcile?

Consider Eleanor’s relationship with her parents, Ivy and Stewart. What are the roots of the conflict between Ivy and Eleanor? What is Stewart’s role within this tense household? How does Eleanor’s family history influence her relationship with her daughter, Kate, which David calls “uneventful” (316)?

When David starts searching for his birth mother, “He discovered that history’s secrets are not always easily found, that all the archives in the world weren’t enough when he didn’t even know who or what he was looking for, or where he should be looking” (128). Discuss the phases of David’s search for Mary Friel. Which clues help David in his search, and which lead him down the wrong path? How does the Internet change the direction of his quest?

As David reels from learning the secret of his birth, he believes that Eleanor “doesn’t keep any secrets from” him (153). Does Eleanor seem to divulge everything to David? Or might she keep some secrets of her own? Explain.

Consider David’s career path at Coventry Museum, from his beginnings as a junior curatorial assistant in 1964 to his layoff in 1986. What career goals does David have as a young man? How does he handle career setbacks, including Anna’s promotion and his layoff?

David never tells Eleanor the secret of his dangerous entanglement with Anna and Chris. What is the impact of the secret upon David and Eleanor’s marriage? Does keeping a secret of his own help David understand Dorothy’s secrets? Why or why not?

Consider David and Eleanor’s trip to Donegal to meet Mary Friel. What changes when Mary tells David, “Most girls would have given false names to the nurses, you know” (359)? Why does this false name end David’s search? How does his lovemaking with Eleanor in the novel’s final scene suggest another kind of beginning?

Discuss the meaning of the title So Many Ways to Begin. What various possibilities of beginnings does the novel put forth? When does the author propose multiple beginnings, and why? What ending does the novel also explore?