Reader's Guide for Double Happiness

Guide by Barbara Putnam

1. These stories have a surface lucidity that goes down briskly. But often time bombs have been set that detonate as one reads on. Rereading reveals even more buried explosives. Which stories operated this way for you? Go back and trace some of the clues that may have eluded you at first. 

2. What is meant by the title “Pelican Song”? How close to the mark was old Sven growling over the speakerphone at Christmas (p. 13)? How could the title also relate, at least ironically, to the legend of pelican mothers pecking out their own blood to feed their starving chicks? 

3. “Pelican Song” contains a recurring concern for women in these stories: body image. “My biggest obstacle to respect, however, had to do with men. I had an odd figure for a modern dancer. Rubenesque, my composer boyfriend called my body when pressed for compliments. . . . I believed a body could be different and still be okay. But when the composer mentioned Botero, I lost confidence” (p. 3). It’s a funny picture for us, those balloon-like sculptures marching up Park Avenue, but what can it mean for a dancer? How does her weight reflect or cause other problems in her life? What other stories in the book come to mind here? In “Aces” Raymond attacks Megan soon after the wedding, when she has been less watchful than before. “You look like a fat little boy,” he says, and she’d been on a diet ever since (p. 131). How else does size figure in the story? Helena? Megan’s “joyful” pregnancy a decade later?

4. Hughes sets the mood in “Horse” with a cold, drab, gray seaside honeymoon and an insensitive, self-absorbed husband. How does the bride, Isabel, struggle to connect? What is symbolized by the beautiful white horse in captivity? How does Isabel break Tom’s shell of cold indifference? 

5. Eden in “Blue Grass” says “I hate this about myself, crying all the time, and I know without a mirror that mascara has made two black half-moons under my eyes, which look ghoulish. . . . When I stand up from the white iron deck chair, the whole back of my dress is wet with dew. I pull the fabric away from my legs” (pp. 44-45). Hughes is unafraid to depict awkward, self-conscious women who may not be beautiful, but are painfully real. How has the beautiful sister Cara affected Eden? Talk about her “pilgrimage” to Saks Fifth Avenue seeking “some device or potion, some answer” from Rita, the “conjurer” saleswoman (p. 27).  Which other women in the stories try to change themselves to accommodate a man or standard of beauty like the “sliver-hipped blonde” Eden imagines on the Vineyard (p. 36)?

6. “Mixed marriage. That’s the trouble. Nothing could be plainer,” say the Benjamis in “Roundup” (p. 53). What does the title refer to? How does it date the story? What does the term imply about our democratic process? On the other side of the family, how does Lucy Twitchell’s Mayflower family react to her marriage?  What would it be like to be married to Philip? Is he ever unambiguously accepting of anyone? His wife (“Miss Two Left Hands” p. 63), his daughter, even his dog, Gunner? How does the issue of suing snake through the story? Beyond mixed marriage, what are the fears of contagion and infection? 

7.  Talk about the vulnerable but plucky child in the story “Rome,” trying to make sense of the world and her father. “On the street it was snowing harder now. The daylight was gray and dim but the Plaza lights were bright. The doorman’s booth glittered like a fortune-teller’s at a carnival. She knew her father was waiting for her, but Olivia felt a strong undertow of hesitation” (p. 81). How does this passage capture both the glitter and the menace of the story? Look at these details on page 74-75: “On Saturday?” “She reached for the soup pot, forgetting the mitt.” “Her mother’s sudden kiss felt dry and too light, like a dead bug blown across her cheek.” “[Her mother] looked to Olivia like a big wishbone strained to the limit.” All these moments happen as the distracted parents send a third-grader on the train into the city alone. “She’d never been allowed to go anywhere in New York alone before. Her father must be making a mistake that he would realize in a moment” (p. 80). What are the successive sinking insights Olivia gleans about her father? Is the town chauffeur, Nat, the only person who is truly careful about Olivia? 

8.  In “Israel” how are the ideas of death, rebirth, neglect, abuse, and forgiveness knit together? “Dr. Ovita was talking about physical therapy, not magic. There was nothing magical about Dr. Ovita, which is why I liked him. He never disappeared; he never changed shape” (p. 92). What are the consequences of the father’s hovering between two worlds in the nine months since he deserted the family? What are the results of the daughter’s moving to Israel? Do you see a parallel with the end of “Pelican Song”? 

9. “The Widow of Combarelles,” the longest story, is a tantalizing whorl that coils and spirals with events, memories, and innuendoes. What do you make of Patty? A silver stiletto in a garden glove, how does she reveal herself to the reader through her own deliciously self-deluding strategies? Her story is part Austen’s Emma, part Charles Addams, with some Blanche of Streetcar Named Desire and Amanda of The Glass Menagerie. Talk about her artfulness. Are characters left wounded in her wake? “She told him it was funny, his father had made his first million when he was even younger than Brad was now. Amazing, right?” (p. 108). What are the exceptions? Who stands up to her and how? Show how the tale is told through Patty, who persists in thinking she is a loyal friend (“Aid and comfort, aid and comfort” p. 103); a graceful, generous, if unappreciated, hostess; and irresistible, well-preserved belle. Rarely, Patty slips her manners: “Where the hell were her slippers anyway?” (p. 109) and “Lifeless rot, both of them” (p. 116). Rot and decay she usually ignores or dismisses. Give examples. How does the book title Double Happiness give a clue to Patty’s mentality? Behind the merry widow tale lies the original “Widow of Combarelles” and echoes of the war in France. How do the double stories intersect? How does Guy serve as a moral compass even as Patty sets her sights? “But for now she knew to keep still. Let him sip and think as if she were nothing but a vapor, or maybe she would be a flame. His choice” (p. 126). 

10.    Adultery may split marriages, be ignored or forestalled in four of the stories placed in the middle of Double Happiness. In “Aces,” there is a theatrical nexus of old girlfriend, husband, and wife meeting by chance in a café in Rome. The husband, Ray, responds to the girlfriend with “‘You remember Megan, of course.’ And Megan stood, too, belly pushed forward. She offered her hand and the victor’s smile he’d seen before” (p. 131). Does Raymond enjoy the frisson of the moment, even as he recalls he’d been “a bit of a bastard” (p. 132)? How? To whom? He’s a man who wants things calm, his way, who looks appreciatively at a veiled woman in a newsreel because she keeps so much inside. Is he a case study in infidelity? “All the tears, all the drama. Not some fateful twine of love and work, as Helena had claimed. Just hormones, Megan’s favorite word” (p. 132). What role does Kamal play in the story? What is his fate? Trace the pattern of Raymond’s treachery in “Aces.” What does that title mean? Is Raymond, the future father, really free of Helena?

11.    In “May Day,” how would you describe the aging parents waiting at the Rhinecliff train station for Melody, their long-grown daughter? What is the occasion? What is the weather on the Hudson? Why is the husband forlorn? May flowers are delinquent: “wisteria hung with desiccated fronds. ‘Wouldn’t you know it,’ said his wife” (p. 152). John Updike wrote, “Old age, he was discovering, arrived in increments of uncertainty” (a story called “Free”). Can this be the mother gripping the railing, stepping carefully as she descends to the platform? Melody, once off the train, responds to her mother with “Hey, Daphne, hi. . . . And quick as a leaf brush, the dry tired peck” of a kiss (p. 175). The mother wonders at how silly it is that this “this teetering frowning wretch” who won’t even call her Mother can make her so happy (p. 154). The father in turn, excited, says “Boat’s in the water.”  “‘You think I’d miss it,’ asked the girl, who looked committed to missing everything” (p. 155). What creates the cruel insouciance of grown children, like this “child” of thirty-five with the misnomer of Melody who comes home after years to feel “quick and light and lovely” while her father struggles up a long staircase with her suitcase?

12.    Does the title “Guidance” seem to relate to Fawn’s life from Denmark to Tokyo to Djakarta to Kuala Lumpur? Why does Betsy say “Just call him Mommy” about the old American? (p. 165). What happens to jostle Fawn’s absorption with her legs, naked swims, and pregnancy? “Up until my birthday at the Hilton I never really took guns seriously” (p. 163). How are Americans depicted? Her husband? Officials in Kuala Lumpur? What is the role of Mustache? How much do we trust the instincts of this teenage narrator with her “fluid, unpredictable style of friendship” (p. 182)? “Betsy always said I had a fatality imagination. Not that I foresaw the worst, the opposite: I saw love and opportunity in every future, and that was fatal” (p. 175). What can become of Fawn and her twins?

13.    What is the irony of the title “Double Happiness” for the last story? There are, after all, two devastating deaths in Ann McCleary’s life in a New Jersey still in the lost shadow of the fallen towers. Is it surprising that Ann returns to the school that has helped her raise five children when she looks for a job? What is the most vivid memory for her in the waiting room? What has propelled her here at this time? What are the series of afflictions that culminate in the Kitrees’ pond? What is symbolized by the young Terry’s pulling up onion grass (see p. 197) and how is that moment inevitably connected with the little boy at the end “who didn’t entirely dislike a story read out loud” (p. 198). Is Ann McCleary both hopeful and realistic in choosing life over her “proclivity to slip away” (p. 193)? Why is this story not only the title story of the book but chosen to be at the end? Is it a kind of summing up? A valedictory?