House Under Snow
About the book:
This first novel by a celebrated American poet is a story of mothers and daughters, of sexual identity, and of a family disintegrating after the premature death of its patriarch. Anna Crane, soon to be married, reflects on her childhood in Ohio during the 1960s and ’70s with her two sisters and Lilly, her charismatic, self-destructing mother. Lilly is consumed by memories of her late husband and spends her days dreamily creating paper menageries or preparing for dates with a stream of suitors. Evoking the claustrophobia of small-town life, the novel races toward a chilling conclusion when Anna is betrayed by the two most important figures in her young life.
Not since Alice McDermott’s That Night has there been such a telling portrait of first love. And not since Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here have we witnessed the destructive, seductive nature of a mother who insists on competing with her children.
About the author:Jill Bialosky received an M.A. in writing from Johns Hopkins University, as well as an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of two books of poetry, and her poems and essays appear regularly in the Paris Review, the New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Nation, and Redbook, among others. An editor at W. W. Norton, she lives in New York with her husband and so.
Q. Themes of abandonment-whether by death or design-run throughout this book: Lilly is abandoned by her mother, her husband, and finally her children; Austin is abandoned by his mother and rejected by his father; Lilly emotionally abandons Anna and her sisters. How are these themes carried out, and how does abandonment affect the life of each character?
Q. Anna’s memories of her early childhood include regular observation of the Jewish holidays and traditions. After her father dies, though, Lilly rejects the faith. How does this affect Anna, in light of the stories Lilly tells about the death of her mother’s sister and parents during the Holocaust, and the death of Lilly’s mother, after living with her own survivor’s guilt?
Q. When Lilly marries again, she marries an Irish Catholic. Consider the differences between Max’s behavior and world view and that of Lilly and her daughters. Why does Lilly marry outside her faith? How does this decision affect her daughters?
Q. After her husband dies, Lilly’s whole identity is in question-she lived for (and, possibly through) her husband. On page 24, Anna observes, “[Lilly] needed a different kind of love to make herself feel alive.” How does this manifest itself in Lilly’s behavior toward her daughters? How does this observation-and Lilly’s behavior-affect Anna’s own sense of identity? How does it affect her relationships with the various men in her life-Austin, Max, and the memory of her father?
Q. Anna’s childhood occurred during the 1960s and ’70s, the Vietnam era. What affect does this have on her, and how much of Lilly’s behavior is reflective of those influences?
Q. Throughout the novel, Anna describes Lilly’s habit of cutting out hundreds of magazine images and storing them in boxes. What is Lilly doing with these pictures, and why does she do it? Does this behavior foreshadow her deteriorating mental state? What does the novel say about grief and its aftermath?
Q. When Anna and Austin go horseback riding, Anna’s horse gets spooked, races off, and then throws her. Austin, frightened that Anna’s been injured, and also frustrated by her inability to help herself out of the situation, asks, “Can’t you for once be in control?” What does he mean by this, and how does it seem that Anna is out of control in other areas of her life? Why is Anna so seemingly passive at the outset of her relationship with Austin? How do her feelings change as the book progresses?
Q. As Anna and Austin’s relationship develops, Austin shows her a model he’d built as a child, one they refer to as his “City of Nowhere.” What does the City of Nowhere mean to each of them, and why do they fantasize about living there?
Q. On page 84, Anna observes, “I knew at an early age that you couldn’t live peacefully in isolation.” What does she mean by this? How did this realization affect choices she made in her adult life, and her relationships with those around her? Anna may be the only character in this novel, however, to have reached that conclusion. How are the other characters isolated-her mother, sisters, Austin?
Q. When Lilly builds the shrine in her bedroom, Anna asks why her mother has saved these particular objects. Lilly tells her, “People don’t understand that the relationship with the dead doesn’t go away.” This seems to have both positive and negative ramifications for Lilly and Anna as individuals. What does Lilly’s statement mean as it relates to each of them?
Q. At the conclusion of the novel both Lilly and Austin betray Anna. How does Bialosky foreshadow that climactic scene? Did you find it believable that a mother would hurt her daughter so cruelly? Why does Austin betray Anna?
Q. On page 206, there”s a reference to the novel’s title-”Ours was like a house under snow, frozen since the day our father died.” What does Anna mean by this? Snow appears frequently throughout the novel-how does the author use this metaphor?
Q. Throughout the novel, Anna refers to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and compares herself and Austin to Cathy and Heathcliff. What parallels can you draw between Brontë’s characters and Bialosky’s?
Q. How did you react to Bialosky’s use of flashback to convey Anna’s story? What affect did that have on you while reading the book?