This reading group guide for At Sea includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading 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. Introduction
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When Cara and Brendan first meet, she’s fresh out of college, recovering from the recent death of her mother, and spending time on Martha’s Vineyard while trying to figure out her next steps. She’s swept away by Brendan’s humor and charm, and intoxicated by his thrilling, dangerous secret: he can breathe underwater. Able to stay beneath the waves for longer than should be possible, Brendan reveals that he is part of a secret experimental unit of the US Special Forces. And Cara, struck by the power of his conviction, by his unstoppable charisma, and by the evidence before her, believes him.
Their summer romance turns serious. Then Cara gets pregnant. When their son, Micah, is born, she’s sure their happy ending is underway. Still, she’s thrown by Brendan’s dramatic moods, his unexplained disappearances, and the weight of his secrets. Cara is determined to stay strong for her young family, to heal Brendan’s psychic wounds, to keep him safe. Until he and baby Micah vanish, leaving her desolate and alone and questioning everything she once thought was true.
Five years later, Cara is still struggling to move forward, married to another man and trying to rebuild her life, when a local fisherman announces he’s spotted two people—one of them a small child—treading water in Nantucket Sound, far from any vessels and miles from shore. The news rekindles Cara’s never-abandoned hope that her little boy may still be alive. As she fights to untangle delusion from reality, and revisits a past she’s worked hard to reconcile, Cara is determined to learn the truth about her lost love and finally find her son. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Cara is wary of Brendan when she first meets him, but he quickly wins her over with his wit and charm. As they get closer and begin to fall for each other, Brendan continues to remind Cara of his imminent departure, but then asks her if she would rather that he stay and forgo his responsibilities. Is this an act of love, or could it be something more sinister? Discuss the unintentional, or intentional, psychological consequences of Brendan telling Cara that they only have so many days together and then telling her it’s up to her whether he stays.
2. On their first date, Cara thinks that Brendan is taking her out to eat and winds up starving as they drink Baileys on the beach. When he asks if she’s hungry, she says she already ate. Does she lie to make him more comfortable, or is it out of self-defense, not wanting to appear too eager or to have misread the situation? Discuss how this habit affects other aspects of her life and her other relationships (with Lindsay, Moira, Graham, etc.).
3. On the drive to the Vineyard, Lindsay and Cara talk about their fears for the future. Cara tells Lindsay that she sometimes worries she might be infertile, but Cara’s inner monologue betrays that her deeper fear for the future is that she will be unable to succeed as an artist. Discuss how these motivations play out throughout her journey and, particularly, the way that they influence her feelings for Brendan and Graham, respectively.
4. Cara had never intended to stay on the Vineyard longer than the summer. She yearns for a sparkly life in New York City, working in galleries and enjoying her youth. However, the months go by, and she never makes the leap. Lindsay asks Cara if she’s staying on the Vineyard because she is guilty of leaving Brendan behind or sad to not be with him. Cara says somewhere in between. Discuss her noncommittal response. Do her actions and inner monologue tell a different story? Later, when Lindsay visits with Zach, Cara tells her friend that New York City was an escape hatch. Was it ever her plan A?
5. Cara claims that art is an antidote to her madness. What does she mean by this? Discuss moments in the book where art, creativity, and creation have healing powers.
6. When Cara is concerned over the sighting of the man and child in the water, she admits that she goes to Graham for practical advice and to Moira when she’s looking for the opposite. When she finds out she’s pregnant, she tells only Lindsay at first, again admitting that she knows exactly what her friend is going to say and what the outcome of the conversation will be. Does Cara depend on her friends and family to help her make decisions, or does she tailor her audience to support her predetermined desires? Can you pinpoint the times that she goes to a friend or family member, hoping for a particular response, and gets the opposite?
7. On the night of the gallery opening, one of the biggest nights of her career to date, Cara doesn’t betray any excitement or sense of accomplishment. She nearly forgets that it is happening. What are the barriers holding Cara back from feeling proud of herself and her success?
8. When Cara plans to break the news of her pregnancy to Brendan, she envisions a perfectly curated environment and a carefully crafted meal. The cooking turns out disastrously and Brendan spoils her plans by running outside to stand in the fresh, freezing snow. Discuss this pattern, in which Cara has perfectly laid plans that, because of Brendan, are never fully realized. When else does this happen, and how does Cara convince herself to stay with him?
9. Cara’s immediate family members are significant characters in the novel, even though we never meet her mother and are only briefly introduced to her father and brother. Discuss the ways that her mother, father, and brother (and her assumptions about their opinions) impact her decisions.
10. Throughout the novel, as Cara and Brendan build a life together, it’s not clear exactly how much Cara knows about Brendan. It is clear, however, that she is concerned about him. After the episode between Brendan and Lucía, Cara claims that she had been in denial for their entire relationship, but is that the whole truth? Discuss the reasons Cara may have willed herself to ignore the reality of the situation.
11. Cara does a meticulous job of covering up for Brendan, but she is not the only one who has seen his episodes. Could—or should—her family or friends have stepped in sooner, and would it have made a difference?
12. After Brendan leaves, Cara paints underwater scenes, and one night she has a dream about being stuck underwater while Brendan swims alongside her. Discuss the literal and metaphorical implications of this theme.
13. When Cara first moves to the Vineyard, her art is hyperrealistic. Her classmates and professors tell her that she has technical skill but her work lacks heart. How does her experience with Brendan impact her work? Discuss the way her identity as an artist changes throughout her story. Enhance Your Book Club.
1. Cara turns to art to make sense of the world. By painting underwater scenes, she expresses the traumatic experience she went through. Bring supplies (paint, colored pencils, macramé, etc.) to your reading group and mimic what you picture Cara’s art looking like. Alternatively, use art to express an intense feeling (elation, grief, isolation) or depict an important memory. Don’t strive for accuracy!
2. If Cara’s family had intervened sooner, things might have turned out differently. Assign a character (Moira, Drew, Lindsay, Graham, Stanley, Lucía) to each group member and improvise what that character would say if they were to hold an intervention.
3. At the end of the novel, Cara claims that she has three choices. One, to parent Micah with Graham alone. Two, to keep Brendan as a peripheral figure in Micah’s life. Third, to leave Graham and dive back into her life with Brendan. Split up into three groups and assign one of the three choices to each group. Have each group imagine the ending of the story according to the choice they were assigned. Reconvene and present the ending to the rest of the group.