Reader's Guide for The Loved Ones
- A New York Times review said of Hughes’s Double Happiness that the beginning of one of her stories is like a train already in motion, in that one must trot to catch a handhold and swing up. Was that your feeling of starting The Loved Ones? If you reread chapter one, what are the complex, interlocking images and incidents that introduce us to the rest of the book?
- How does the novel reflect prominent values of the era of the late sixties and early seventies? Think of Jean being raised by her father, Clyde, who always wanted his daughter to have and be “the best of the best” (p. 3), a goal shared by the striving Nick, whether it is the stateroom suite or prestige-label clothes.
- Do the characters evoke Mad Men?
- Do Jean Devlin, Nick, and other characters show any awareness of or curiosity about an outside world? Current events? What resources can these people call on? Is education or reading even considered (after convent school)? Art or music or theater?
- If you were asked to state what The Loved Ones is about, where would you start? The plot(s)? Characters? Settings? Details of language? Can you disentangle these elements? How does Hughes’s shrewd intelligence keep us tuned to many events and possibilities at the same time? Is she an author who assumes an alert reader?
- What is the role of fresh starts, starting with London plans in chapter one? Does hope, however tenuous, fuel the characters?
- Everyone, women and men, looks gorgeous and well pressed. They make an effort, spend the money, and judge each other reflexively on appearance. What is underneath those glittering surfaces? Examples? How does fantasy rule?
- Do these characters remind you of the “careless people,” especially Daisy and Tom, in The Great Gatsby? Vivienne (like Myrtle in Gatsby) is collateral damage for the cosmetics kings. Does their money and alcohol keep them floating above ordinary life and its consequences? At least that is their hope. “It’s all a game, that’s all” (p. 145). Jean regards Nick as a Teflon man: “[U]nscathed, that was Nick here. He laughed at these scrutinizing women and why not, what could they find wanting. . . . She’d begun to believe in his resilience and thought she might even catch it in some way. That was all she needed to do. Stand and be judged on something silly, like the mesh-metal vest she wore tonight or her long fake blond braid, and be found fabulous. Nick loved all the costumes” (pp. 141-42).
- How do sexual fantasies ripple through the stories? Whose? The high-flying men conjuring orgies? Jean’s unnerving but persistent responses to Lionel? Lily’s teenage crushes? Nuns? Apart from the nuns, are the fantasies a cause or a result of all the preoccupation with beauty, fashion, and glamour?
- When do class attitudes emerge? Sexism? Anti-Semitism? Other prejudices?
- How does Hughes handle time in the novel? Is there a deliberate blurring of time? Is it reflected in the use of alcohol and drugs? What is achieved by the flashbacks, especially in Jean’s mind? Is the past thus retained as part of the puzzle? Who are these people who are puzzles to themselves, too?
- How does Cubbie’s insidious cancer eat at the Devlin family? Does the family fully absorb his death? What, in this regard, makes Jean furious with both her father and Nick and even Lionel, who wouldn’t come to the hospital?
- Cubbie remains a shadow figure throughout. How? Do we ever hear about happier times before he was sick?
- Cosmetics are touted to improve reality—and bankbooks. Similarly, characters engage in theatrics to control their images. Studied behavior, calculations, and ruses are all part of the game. Jean, although she ‘disliked being a bit player in other people’s pageants’ (p. 241), often wonders how Nick would react to something she does, glad when she can make him laugh. Nick makes his “entrances,” aware of his audience. Lionel is hyperaware of his appearance, from hairstyle to slipping kimono to black velvet slippers with a gold coat of arms . . . and, of course, his scent. What times can you remember when these and other characters playact?
- Would you say the dominant metaphor of the book is smells? Some are pleasant if concocted, as in the cosmetics. More are noxious, threatening in some way. The olfactory imagery is startling and revelatory. Talk about some of the odors that assail characters. Is it particularly Jean and Lily who notice smells? Is Jean, in Cubbie’s absence, left more vulnerable? Is Nick’s recognition of the morass of corruption intensified by odors he detects? Deception in the cosmetics business is shocking in the brutal smells of animal testing in the New Jersey lab. What is ironic about the high hopes for Scheherazade lipstick? This setting is made worse by “the oil refineries with their blistering smell” (p. 152), also en route to the scene of Cubbie’s last hospital. In the cloistered part of Lily’s convent school is the smell of mildew and incense and vinegar . . . and a corpse! Resilient, the girls try to make the handheld rosary into a cat’s cradle—one hilarious moment in the book. Do these characters seem unusually sensitive to odors as they read each other through smell?
- What does illness signify in the book? For Nick, migraines and asthma are clear warnings of stress, often of self-medicated excess. Are they signals to him about the corrupt life he is leading? (Jean has been warned that Nick is burning the candle too many ways, with uppers and downers and alcohol, but as she says, who isn’t?) One time he is not exempt is the indictment. What is it for? Who has tangled him in that web? And who extricates him? (See p. 180.) When do both Lily and Jean succumb to nausea, and why?
- What are the defining traits of Jean? Is she surprisingly honest about her reactions to people? About Nick, for good or for ill? Lily? And even Lionel, that charming scoundrel? Having played the game in London, does she show a glimmer of regaining balance in her life? At one point she sees a discreet holiday decoration and thinks how glad she is not to be tromping Fifth Avenue, “No angels with glitter falling off their trumpets, no Santas’ (p. 160). What kind of mother is she? . . . [S]he looked at Lily fondly, as if she were pantomiming the wry happiness of motherhood. No one could see through this act and that astonished Lily. She was waiting for her real mother to return. For the most part, she was patient” (p. 184-85). And another time, “Good girl, she said and she smelled like Scotch and honey. . . . All right, angel. And Lily felt in that moment her mother loved her; she just needed to keep it very quiet” (p. 165).
- Explore the notion of friendship in the story. Are there reliable friendships? Or are they all subject to envy and competition? Can most of them be bought in some way?
- How do Lily’s parents affect her fragile self-image? “[I]n London, where her mother was increasing her beauty by the day, and her father was becoming a true expert. . . . He framed Lily’s face with his hands, like an artist, carefully erasing the parts he wouldn’t keep” (p. 133). Her mother is appalled by her daughter’s thighs, and “The girls in Lily’s class were beautiful in a way her father would approve of” (p. 150). Remember, these are ninth graders!
- How do Jean’s memories of her father change? How does Ruby’s judgment of Clyde as a “flimflam man” relate to Nick and Jean’s story? Does her recalling Clyde’s treatment of Doris make her more understanding of Nick in business and with Lily? How is she able to ignore the brutal scene of Nick and Lily in the messy room and just go back to her bedroom? Do you find her overlooking Nick’s bad behavior credible? How does Vivienne clarify what Jean has tried to overlook? He disappears in the night mysteriously and frequently, and she has to rescue him. Is this the way their marriage can survive? “She and Nick were in a flexible moment, that’s what she’d called it in the end” (p. 259). When Nick tells Lily her mother should “do something with her life . . . her mother would say that perhaps Lily’s father was in the middle of an adjustment phase” (p. 150). Do you think Nick succeeds in “adjusting” himself in the story?
- Lily is certainly in an adjustment period in the book. What does she have to adjust to, and how much does she have to do on her own? Her grandmother observes about Lily’s future, “If she was going to plant tulip bulbs and serve crab dip, she needed to shape up” (p. 66). How likely is this for Lily’s future? She is a shrewd observer, for instance, of her parents. Do you think she will fashion a self, having learned from her experience?
- “What kind of religion is your mother?” “Self-veneration, it’s very portable. She can practice anywhere” (p. 171). This is Lawrence Weatherfield speaking about his posturizing mother. How many other characters practice the religion of self-veneration? Even as the children are analyzing their parents, are they also imitating them? How?
- By the end, how have the Devlins come full circle? The Gooseneck Cove house, Clyde’s gambling trophy, was at first “rotted up to the caved-in roof . . . [with] a stench like something dead and decaying” (p. 4). Jean then turned it into another kind of trophy, a house-tour “best of the best.” Homecoming from London is to another trashed dream with a rank stink of chemicals. “This is Lionel. I’m sure of it” is Nick’s reaction (p. 283). Do you believe this? (Recall the grandiose plan to renovate Billy’s house, “Though I’ll have to reignite the place to pay for it” [p. 118]. Lionel says he’s kidding. Is he?) They will have to start over. Is the vandalism going to be a cleansing, in a horrible way? Will Cubbie finally be put to rest? Will Nick extricate himself from his demons?
- The final image, ordinary soap, one put forth by Cubbie long ago, suggests what about Nick and Jean’s future (pp. 285-86)?
Suggestions for Further Reading:
The Player by Michael Tolkin; Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates; The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen; Freedom by Jonathan Franzen; Almost Never by Daniel Sada; The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler; The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald; Light Years by James Salter; Wavemaker II by Mary-Beth Hughes; Double Happiness by Mary-Beth Hughes.