One of our recommended books for 2019 is Lifelines by Heidi Diehl

LIFELINES


For fans of Meg Wolitzer and Maggie Shipstead: a sweeping debut novel following an American artist who returns to Germany—where she fell in love and had a child decades earlier—to confront her past at her former mother-in-law’s funeral.

It’s 1971 when Louise leaves Oregon for Düsseldorf, a city grappling with its nation’s horrific recent history, to study art. Soon she’s embroiled in a scene dramatically different from the one at home, thanks in large part to Dieter, a mercurial musician. Their romance ignites quickly, but life gets in the way: an unplanned pregnancy, hasty marriage, the tense balance of their creative ambitions,

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For fans of Meg Wolitzer and Maggie Shipstead: a sweeping debut novel following an American artist who returns to Germany—where she fell in love and had a child decades earlier—to confront her past at her former mother-in-law’s funeral.

It’s 1971 when Louise leaves Oregon for Düsseldorf, a city grappling with its nation’s horrific recent history, to study art. Soon she’s embroiled in a scene dramatically different from the one at home, thanks in large part to Dieter, a mercurial musician. Their romance ignites quickly, but life gets in the way: an unplanned pregnancy, hasty marriage, the tense balance of their creative ambitions, and—finally, fatally—a family secret that shatters Dieter, and drives Louise home.

But in 2008 she’s headed to Dieter’s mother’s funeral. She never returned to Germany, and has since remarried, had another daughter, and built a life in Oregon. As she flies into the heart of her past, she reckons with the choices she made, and the ones she didn’t, just as her family—current and former—must consider how Louise’s life has shaped their own, for better and for worse.

Exquisitely balanced, expansive yet wonderfully intimate, Lifelines explores the indelible ties of family; the shape art, history, and nationality give to our lives; and the ways in which we are forever evolving, with each step we take, with each turn of the Earth.

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  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Hardcover
  • June 2019
  • 336 Pages
  • 9781328483720

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$26.00

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About Heidi Diehl

Heidi Diehl is the author of LifelinesHeidi Diehl‘s writing has appeared in Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Indiana Review, Mississippi Review, Witness, and elsewhere. She received her MFA from Brooklyn College and has won fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Saltonstall Foundation, and the Vermont Studio Center. She lives in Brooklyn.

Praise

“What a graceful, attentive, and beautiful debut. Among Diehl’s abundant gifts are a wonderful eye for the telling detail, a lovely narrative patience, a playful comfort with structural panache, a genuine affection for her characters, and a keen understanding of the ways in which families actually work. The novel thrums with the sadness of life, and also with its comforts.” —George Saunders

“Lifelines is a true tapestry of a book, intricate and elegantly told, about family and nationhood, and the ways that each generation is shaped by the one that came before it. Diehl writes with a remarkable emotional intelligence that will stay with me for a very long time.” —Julia Pierpont, New York Times-bestselling author of Among the Ten Thousand Things and The Little Book of Feminist Saints 

“From the collision of art and family to the prolonged misunderstandings between characters living across cultures, Heidi Diehl has crafted a complex novel that builds with subversive power, to an assured ending. With riveting precision, Lifelines addresses an inevitable reality of adulthood: for better or worse, we remain beholden to all our relationships, even those we choose to end.” —Idra Novey, author of Ways to Disappear and Those Who Knew

Lifelines is an arresting portrait of selves left behind and selves discovered. Heidi Diehl writes with precision and heart about home, history, identity and the lives we might have led.” —Ramona Ausubel, author of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty and Awayland

“At once moving and intelligent, Heidi Diehl’s Lifelines is about history and politics, memory and art. It spans continents and generations, and it earns its ambition. It’s a riveting, important debut.” —Joshua Henkin, author of Matrimony and The World Without You

“Diehl’s debut confidently handles these cultural and historical complexities and is equally fluent in depicting the concerns and processes of visual artists and musicians. A serious, nuanced portrait of a family of creative people as their decisions, large and small, play out in their lives.” Kirkus

“Diehl finds the bittersweet heartache of retrospection, and compassionately explores how art helps heal. This complex, intimate story memorably portrays what it looks like to reckon with one’s choices and to feel both uncertainty and peace.” Publishers Weekly

“A strong debut novel from a writer with a talent for character building.” Booklist

Discussion Questions

1. How does Louise grow emotionally and also revise her own narrative of her relationship to her parents? Consider Dieter’s relationship with his mother and to his father’s story by comparison. Have you revised your own self-narrative or reinterpreted your family story as you’ve aged?

2. Mary says it must be strange for Louise to have a child who speaks another language. Consider the double meaning of this, given that Louise in some sense speaks another language from her parents. How do Louise and her parents bridge that gap in understanding? Do children and their parents bear equal responsibility in shaping their relationship with each other?

3. Should Hannelore have told Louise the Hinterkopf family secret? Do you think Louise does the right thing in telling Dieter? Was there a right thing to do? Does the secret belong to Dieter and should he tell Elke? Is the secret Richard, Dieter, and Louise keep from their daughters about what happened in Eugene at all comparable to the secret in Dieter’s family? How does it affect Margot and Elke?

4. How does the novel’s structure—wherein we move from one character’s perspective to another and also between time periods—contribute to its meaning? Imagine a given experience from another character’s perspective: What might Dieter’s 1978 visit to Eugene look like from his perspective, for instance? If you were to gain more sympathy for Dieter, would you lose some for Louise? Josef Albers’s dictums—that colors are in continuous flux and are always fooling us—express a subjectivity Louise finds reassuring (p. 42). How much of the truth of what happens is subjective? Does subjectivity become a more loaded proposition in reference to something like the horrors of Nazi Germany?

5. What desire lines does Louise trace in her life? Where do other characters stray from prescribed paths and follow their own? Walking in a Berlin park, Louise watches the path ahead disappear from sight and hears Richard’s voice in her head asserting: Pedestrians need mystery. They need turns (p. 284). Is it always better not to know what paths our lives will take? When have you followed your own desire lines?

6. When they meet again in 2008, Ute recasts Louise’s naked dancing not as a desperate act but as a feminist gesture. How do you read it? Can both interpretations be true? How much easier is it today to juggle a career with motherhood? Do you read Margot’s role in the band as empowering or diminishing? Is that a subjective question? Have you questioned whether an action you’ve taken in your own life is feminist or anti-feminist?

7. Does Dieter over-identify with Germany’s crimes? Does his feeling of shame do harm to his sense of identity and his relationships? When does Louise experience her Americanness? The terrorism at the 1972 Munich Olympics crushes Germany’s spirits. Have you experienced a communal sense of hope or disappointment in your own nation? Is your sense of identity affected by your relationship to your country?

8. Richard is glad the communist façades at Alexanderplatz in Berlin haven’t been torn down: “Better those ugly relics,” he thinks, “than some chain hotel” (p. 299). Do you agree with him? In Düsseldorf, Dieter shows Louise the marks of ammunition in the buildings. Compare the preserved artifacts of a city’s past with deliberately constructed monuments to past people or events. What purpose does each serve? Do all monuments become artifacts? Richard says that the architects of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin intended for life to happen in and around it. Is there some discomfort for visitors built into that encounter? Think of your favorite monument and consider the question Richard asks of all monuments: who is it for?

9. How does Louise’s art practice evolve between 1971 and 2008? What happens when Richard refrains from documenting Louise’s 18th project? Does Louise’s response signify growth on her part? Louise sees the project as “a forced reckoning with time,” a way of marking and assessing a thing, like an anniversary, which involves both grief and joy (p. 316). Do you use anniversaries as a way of checking in with your life’s progress, or do you have another way of doing this? Is it important to both grieve and celebrate the passage of time?

10. Dieter wants to do things differently from the previous generation. Does he succeed? Does he confront the past or try to escape it? Dieter thinks Joel’s knowledge of musical influences comes too easily and that internet searches make “the past a constant buffet” (p. 269). Do you think the internet cheapens our relationship to the past?

11. Louise seeks to document time’s passage in her art projects while Dieter pursues a kind of timelessness, both in his music and by moving to New York, a city he describes as “ongoing” and without time. How do you experience these two attitudes toward time in your own life: as something to be measured and captured on the one hand, escaped or transcended on the other? Are both orientations necessary for living fully? Louise wonders how much of her life is a question of timing and asks herself, What if Dieter had come before she’d met Richard, or if she hadn’t met Richard? Is it helpful or dangerous to consider life’s what-ifs?

12. Why doesn’t Louise return to Germany after going to Eugene? What drew her to Dieter in Germany and what divided them? Do you think Richard is a better partner for Louise? Elke and Dieter, perhaps most affected by her decision, are both doing well—if either were struggling, would you judge Louise’s decision differently?

13. How do Louise and Dieter both attempt to apologize to the other? Do they forgive each other, or themselves? Does Richard forgive Louise? Is an apology needed to forgive? How does the passage of time help bring about forgiveness? Does a country need to apologize for its crimes and be forgiven—or forgive itself—in order to move on?

14. Which aspects of Louise’s character do you see in Margot? In Elke? What are the strengths and vulnerabilities of each? Is Louise a different mother to each? Why is Elke drawn to astrology? What makes Margot swerve away from graduate study toward music? Elke worries about Dieter’s feelings, is protective of Margot, and takes pains to reassure Richard. Does any other character express as much concern for the well-being of others? Does Elke’s upbringing explain her sensitivity?

15. Louise apologizes to Elke for having her baptized and promises she’ll let Elke make her own choices when she’s older. Is choice sometimes overvalued or burdensome? If achieving maturity can be seen as a matter of reconciling ourselves both to the circumstances we’ve chosen and to those we’ve been handed, do you think Dieter and Louise accomplish this reconciliation? Which is more difficult: to accept the choices you’ve made or those that have been made for you?

Suggested Further Reading:

Nicole Krauss, Great House
Nora Krug, Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home
W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz
Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings
Maggie Shipstead, Astonish Me
Josef Albers, Interaction of Color
Joseph Beuys, What Is Art? Conversations with Joseph Beuys
Ulrich Adelt, Krautrock: German Music in the Seventies
David Stubbs, Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany
Lucy Lippard, From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art
Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City

Excerpt

Louise was a passenger in her own car.

Richard, her husband, the inveterate cyclist, was driving her to the airport. When they got to Amazon Parkway, he turned left instead of making the right that led to the freeway, the fastest route there. They passed the rose gardens, then the pizza place run by second-wave hippies. Soon the streets were unfamiliar. Houses sank into hard yellow grass. Flowers, their stems bleached and brittle, offered no premonition of the rainy season ahead. Louise had lived in Eugene a long time; it was nearly impossible that this terrain could feel new. But Richard taught urban design, and he never took the same route twice. That detour made us discover those donuts, he liked to remind her. We never would have found that park. Life presented constant opportunities for research, he told his graduate students.

And maybe he wanted her to miss her flight.

It was October, and for the first time in many years, Louise was not shackled to the school calendar. At fifty-nine, she was newly retired, or perhaps just unemployed. Until a few months earlier, she’d taught art at a private school across town—the Cedar School, with its experimental curriculum and sliding-scale tuition—but in June, the principal had confirmed the swirling rumors: the strapped school would be closing for good.

Normally at this point in the fall, Louise would have been dreading the annual barbeque at the vice principal’s house—a time for teachers to get together and moan about their seasonal panic, to swap verbal recipes for horrible dips made of sour cream. Now she longed for that familiar slump. The usual classroom anxieties had filled her recent dreams, and it took a few minutes in the middle of the night to remember that she wasn’t going back.

This drive to the airport prompted similar feelings: she was urgently nostalgic for Eugene’s hippie pizza and ordered green spaces, even though it was all still right there, the colors softened by fog.

Richard squeezed the wheel. “Remind me what I’m doing with the wood.”

Louise had charged him with maintaining her project while she was gone, adding a piece to the cumulative sculpture she had been working on for almost twenty years on the land behind their house.

“The next piece is in the garage,” she said. “With the drawings.” She’d cut plywood into triangles and squares already, their sides four or five feet long, and painted them. Each new shape was added to a line in the yard that pushed forward and turned back as its tail end decomposed. The rules were simple: a new piece and two photos on the 18th of every month, documenting how the untreated wood had faded and settled into the earth. The wood’s decay was the most interesting part?—it gave her a way to measure time, to feel its pressure. An ongoing reminder, a clock. The 18th project was at once a utopian vision—that plotted spectrum against the green grass—and a document of its failure. Fading and breakdown left in its wake. To see both the possibility and the aftermath offered a gratifying sense of control.

What will you do when you run out of space? people often asked. That wasn’t the threat. Their two-acre yard cut into a patch of forest at the edge of the property. She could work on the project at the same rate for decades longer; the wood’s decay cleared space for a return, and that promised room had always reassured her. Money was the real limitation. The question was whether she and Richard could afford to stay in the house now that Louise had lost her job and her pension.

“What about the camera?” Richard asked.

“One shot from the ladder, one from the roof,” Louise said. “You know how to do it.”

He’d done it before. Taken over for Louise when she was out of town. But it was unusual for her to go away without him. The two of them timed their trips to the project—camping on the coast, visiting their scraps of extended family. Some things were unavoidable, of course. Graduations, weddings, parents’ weekends: occasionally they fell on the 18th. Louise would ask their younger daughter, Margot, to set the next piece, or else a friend, if the whole family was away.

“What if the pictures come out wrong?” Richard asked. Back when she’d first devised the project—an eroding line—Richard had been the one to suggest the photos in regular increments. She hadn’t switched to digital photography, at least not for the strict confines of the project. Her simple rules made it easier to keep going.

“You’ve always done it right,” Louise said.

Richard nodded. He knew exactly how to take the pictures, but knowing and wanting to be told were two different things.

Louise would be taking three flights that day.