Are You Sleeping

A Novel

About The Book

Serial meets Ruth Ware’s In A Dark, Dark Wood in this inventive and twisty psychological thriller about a mega-hit podcast that reopens a murder case and threatens to unravel the carefully constructed life of the victim’s daughter—soon to be a major TV series from Apple and produced by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine!

The only thing more dangerous than a lie…is the truth.

Josie Buhrman has spent the last ten years trying to escape her family and with good reason. After her father’s murder thirteen years prior, her mother ran away to join a cult and her twin sister Lanie, once Josie’s closest friend and confidant, betrayed her in an unimaginable way. Now, Josie has finally put down roots in New York, settling into domestic life with her partner Caleb, and that’s where she intends to stay.

The only problem is that she has lied to Caleb about every detail of her past—starting with her last name.

When investigative reporter Poppy Parnell sets off a media firestorm with a megahit podcast that reopens the long-closed case of Josie’s father’s murder, Josie’s world begins to unravel. Meanwhile, the unexpected death of Josie’s long-absent mother forces her to return to her Midwestern hometown where she must confront the demons from her past—and the lies on which she has staked her future.

Reading Group Guide
This readers group guide for Are You Sleeping includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your readers group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


After an adventurous period touring Africa and Asia in her twenties, Josie Buhrman has settled into a comfortable life in New York City. Her job at the neighborhood bookstore is steady and pleasant, and she can rely on her live-in boyfriend, Caleb, when not away on business, to share leisurely hours in their apartment with cups of coffee and the daily crossword puzzle.

But Josie also keeps a secret past from her dreamy partner. Her father was murdered when she was just a girl. Grief-stricken, Josie’s mother abandoned her twin daughters to the care of their aunt and joined up with a strange cult in California. Her sister, Lanie, also grew increasingly distant, ultimately severing the last remnants of their once-fierce bond by stealing Josie’s high-school sweetheart.

And when enterprising young journalist Poppy Parnell turns Josie’s private ordeal into a very public trial with a hit podcast revisiting her father’s murder case, her long-absent mother suddenly commits suicide, and the newly laid foundation of Josie’s new identity begins to crack beneath her. In order to fly back to the Midwest and make arrangements, Josie has to come clean with Caleb—but comes to find that the truths still buried at home go deeper than those she even knew to hide.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Are You Sleeping makes inventive formal use of social media at the end of each chapter, from podcast transcriptions to representations of threads on Twitter. How does the author’s choice to reveal many of the Buhrman family’s secrets through social media, rather than from Josie’s point of view, affect the way she structures the story?

2. Josie spends a lot of time weighing her decision to lie to Caleb about her past. When she does finally come clean, she explains to him that she had told him her mother was dead because “she abandoned us [. . .] For all I knew, she was dead. [. . .] I’d devoted a lot of time and effort to distancing my old life from my new one. I tried to forget about my family” (p. 149). How did you first react to this admission? Do you agree or disagree with her reasoning?

3. People react in a variety of ways to death, as Barber keenly depicts when Josie must struggle to swallow “inappropriate laughter” at her mother’s visitation (p. 92). How do you see Josie’s feelings about her mother changing over the course of this difficult occasion? In what ways does she compare herself to Lanie through the ways each sister chooses to grieve?

4. Aunt A understands her sister’s abandonment of her children as a symptom of guilt—over the deaths of her brother, her parents, and finally her husband. For which circumstances, given what you learn at the end of the novel, do you feel Erin rightly assumes blame? How much does her victimhood during her marriage explain her actions after Chuck’s death?

5. Josie’s feelings about Lanie and Adam’s union depend a lot on whether Adam confused one twin for the other when he first slept with Lanie. How much consolation do you think it offers Josie to trust that the affair started as a case of mistaken identity? Do you think she ever genuinely believed that explanation to be true?

6. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina held an important place in Erin’s heart during her life. How might she have related the novel’s famous opening line—“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (p. 184)—to her own experience? What other features of Tolstoy’s novel might help explain why she would choose to convey her suicide note to her daughters on its pages?

7. When confronted with the argument that the unvarnished approach of the Reconsidered podcast might have contributed to Erin’s suicide, Poppy emphasizes that “it wasn’t a group of strangers” that killed her, but “the ghosts of her own past” (p. 194). What do you think of this interpretation? To what degree is suicide a personal choice or a tragedy of circumstance?

8. Josie feels steadfastly that the podcast has turned “[her] father’s untimely death into a commodity” (p. 195) and “taken the single most horrible thing that’s ever happened to [her] and repackaged it as entertainment” (pp. 196–197). To what degree do you think journalists have an obligation to treat living subjects with sensitivity? Does the need to inform the public outweigh the risk crime reporting runs of commodifying the pain and suffering of victims?

9. Photographs appear frequently in the novel as windows into the past and clues about the circumstances surrounding Chuck’s murder. How do photographs like Lanie’s unhappy portrait at her wedding (p. 73), the snapshot of the family at Mount Rushmore, or the photo in the garden with a glimpse of Melanie Cave in the background (p. 220) illuminate details beyond the reach of memory? In which ways do they also mislead?

10. While Poppy easily dismisses that “Lanie Buhrman is not a victim” (p. 231), Josie comes to realize at the end of the novel that her sister’s pain “went beyond witnessing his death, it even went beyond seeing our mother be the one to pull the trigger—it was the unrelenting torment of unconsciously believing she could have done something to stop it, that she was responsible for the loss of our parents” (p. 306). How does this realization shed light on Lanie’s development as a character? Is her self-doubt about motherhood justified? Is her marriage a healthy bond?

11. As a result of the trauma she has experienced, Lanie’s memory of the words of her father’s killer evolves from “first the girl” (p. 87) to finally “first Pearl, and now . . .” (p. 289). Consider the theme of memory in Are You Sleeping. In what ways does Barber demonstrate how the mind alters or constructs reality? How reliable should a child be as an eyewitness to the murder of his or her parent?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. The format of Reconsidered bears some striking resemblances to the first season of the investigative journalism podcast Serial. Listen to the series and discuss in which ways Serial might have been an inspiration for the language and style of Barber’s fictional podcast. Compare Sarah Koenig’s journalistic approach specifically to that of Poppy Parnell.

2. The title Are You Sleeping could be taken a few different ways. Put together an argument for an interpretation of the title’s meaning that might surprise the other members of your book club and present it to them.

3. Fans and critics of Reconsidered alike use Twitter to express interesting ethical points at various times during the novel. Choose one of the Twitter handles Barber has invented and stage a debate in which each member of your book club maintains the point of view of one of the fictional users regarding the role investigative journalism should play in our society.
About The Author

Kathleen Barber was raised in Galesburg, Illinois. She graduated from the University of Illinois and Northwestern University School of Law, and previously practiced bankruptcy law at large firms in Chicago and New York. When she’s not writing, Kathleen enjoys traveling the world with her husband.

Product Details
  • Publisher: Gallery Books (August 2017)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501157707

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Raves and Reviews

“..[An] inventive debut…The intense plot and character studies are enhanced by the emotional look at the dynamics of a family forever scarred by violence."

– Publishers Weekly starred review

"Barber is a delightful writer who has produced a taut thriller that will leave you wondering the identity of the killer. My prediction: the book is destined for the New York Times best seller list."

– Chicago Tribune

"I was completely hooked from the very fist page. Layers of deceit, family drama, a murdered father, a disturbed mother, mayhem, cults, lies, betrayals, and a possibly deranged podcaster--this story has it all. Lanie and Josie are Janus twins, and their twisting lives left me breathless. Who to trust? Who to believe? Who really killed their father? ARE YOU SLEEPING taps into our collective conscience with a true crime podcast propelling the narrative and takes an unflinching look at the truths we create about ourselves. Kathleen Barber is a fabulous new author to watch. If you like twisty psychological thrillers, this is your book."

– J.T. Ellison, bestselling co-author of THE DEVIL'S TRIANGLE

"Kathleen Barber perfectly captures the media frenzy around a notorious murder and the inclusion of a podcast adds an extra layer of timely eeriness. The public perception is contrasted flawlessly against the element of private pain, such that the “public” itself becomes a fully developed character. Beautifully and sympathetically written, ARE YOU SLEEPING? is a murder whodunit, a social commentary, and an exploration of sisterly bonds all in one."

– Kate Moretti, author of The Vanishing Year

Are You Sleeping will more than likely keep you up all night as this most compelling suspenseful novel unfolds. A classic whodunnit gets a very clever modern treatment that left this reader's heart racing right up to the last page.”

–Liz Nugent, author of Unraveling Oliver

“Reminiscent of the hit podcast Serial, this debut is an exciting read about what happens when the past continues to haunt the present.”

– Dallas News

"Anyone who has fallen head-first into a podcast such as "S-Town" or "Serial" will appreciate the plot of Kathleen Barber's novel." 

–Houston Chronicle

"Ripped from the headlines of an on-line pod cast that reopens murder cases, this really well written psychological thriller moves rapidly through time as it unravels the circumstances surrounding a small town murder."

– Fiction Addiction

"Josie's dark past becomes fodder for the podcast du jour--if that doesn't hook you, the twist will."

– Cosmopolitan

“An excellent examination of what it must be like to be caught up in a media frenzy…absorbing reading for those who can’t get enough of flawed-but-likable narrators.”

– Booklist

“…showing how complicated the truth can be when people have different levels of investment in it. Dark. Moving. Timely.”


“ARE YOU SLEEPING, reels the reader in and keeps us wondering until the very end…dives into the complexities of relationships, and the value of love and connection, especially in the face of tragedy and despair.”

– BookReporter

"Verdict: Barber weaves a twisty tale that will grip readers as they follow Josie confronting a past she finally cannot escape. Highly recommended for fans of the podcast Serial and authors such as Ruth Ware and Paula Hawkins."

– Library Journal, starred review

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