THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING A NOVEL
by Jamie Harrison Reading Group Guide & Discussion Questions
1. What do you see as the inciting incident in this book—the moment that launches the story and from which the rest of the action unfolds? Or perhaps you see more than one? 2. After her accident, Polly sifts through her fragmented memory as if she were “editing her story”. (34) Have there been moments in time when you’ve attempted to recast your own memory or perception of your own life? How did you do so, and what were the results of your efforts? 3. The scene of Polly ‘recognizing’ her long-dead paternal grandparents Frank and Evie in a laundromat in New York City is one that echoes throughout the novel, with many people questioning Polly’s sanity because of the memory. But by the end of this book, we learn that these anonymous doppelgangers also thought they recognized Polly (277). Why do you think this meeting was important to Polly? Have you ever had a similar moment of misrecognition? 4. Harrison writes of Polly early on, “It would be easier to bear if the damage had a plot, if she knew the point to this part of the story, or whether she’d ever make a living from her brain again.” (25) Why is Polly (and by extension human nature) so fixed on crafting a narrative for herself in the first place? Have you ever experienced a similar urge to tell the story of your life? What resulted from this? 5. How do you see the title, The Center of Everything, relating to the story? Who or what might be the center(s), and what might “everything” itself be? 6. The Yellowstone River, sight of much beauty and pain throughout the novel, winds its way through these pages. On page 116, Ariel’s body, still undiscovered by the search party, floats downriver at night past the unwitting families: “Ariel moved down the center of the river like a swan, sometimes regal, sometimes spinning like a toy, but even though she passed the wedding party . . . nobody but the heron noticed her.” How do you feel nature and death are portrayed in this book? 7. Describing the difficult truths learned by Polly and Edmund during the tumultuous summer of 1968, Harrison writes that they knew “the world needed monsters, even if it made it hard to walk through the dark.” (190) Do you agree with this statement? In your reading, who are the ‘monsters’ in this story? What need do they serve? COU N T ER POI N T
8. Another lesson learned by Polly and Edmund that summer is that “you had to treat your memory like a violin and play the bits you liked so that you wouldn’t forget.” (190) Why do we focus on the negative in our selective memories? What are some happy memories that you would like to revisit more? 9. “Try to tell a story of a family in photographs, thought Polly. Just try.” (199) If you were to tell the story of your family in photographs, what three photos (real or imagined) would you need to describe in order to do so? Conversely, are there ‘memories’ you have that were actually fabricated from a treasured photo? 10. Harrison writes, “If you were a girl, so much of life was down to luck, walking home at the wrong time, with the wrong man behind you.” (257) Men—violent, scary, and sometimes gentle—populate the pages of The Center of Everything, and their actions do a great deal to steer the plot: from the indignant man who clips Polly on her bicycle in the beginning, to her grandfather who drove Asta off the bridge, to the unstable and violent Graham. But there are good men, too—Polly’s husband Ned, a patient father, and Harry, a devoted former stepfather to Ariel. Was there a particular male character who stood out to you? And how do the women in the story—Polly, Maude, Dee, and especially Rita—influence events in their own ways? 11. By the end, most of the characters seem confident that Graham murdered Ariel, yet Harrison never provides a concrete explanation or scene of Ariel’s last moments. Why do you think she does this? 12. Polly’s memories of Papa and Dee form the emotional center of Polly’s childhood and the novel as a whole, even as she uncovers some difficult truths about their lives in the summer of 1968. Are there similarly “larger than life” figures in your own family that you were reminded of when reading these sections? How do you continue to remember—or even romanticize— these relations even after they are gone?
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