A “tense, taut, and thrilling” (Marie Claire) novel about a teenage girl, a predatory teacher, and a school’s complicity from the highly acclaimed, bestselling National Book Award finalist and author of A Short History of Women—“riveting, terrifying, exactly the book for our times” (Ann Patchett).
They were on a lark, three teenaged girls speeding across the greens at night on a “borrowed” golf cart, drunk. The cart crashes and one of the girls lands violently in the rough, killed instantly. The driver, Jo, flees the hometown that has turned against her and enrolls at a prestigious boarding school. Her past weighs on her. She is responsible for the death of her best friend. She has tipped her parents’ rocky marriage into demise. She is ready to begin again, far away from the accident.
“Devastatingly relevant” (Vogue) and “fueled by gorgeous writing” (NPR), His Favorites reveals the interior life of a young woman determined to navigate the treachery in a new world. Told from her perspective many years later, the story coolly describes a series of shattering events and a school that failed to protect her. “Before things turn treacherous, there’s a moment when predation can feel dangerously like kindness…Walbert understands this…His Favorites begs to be read” (Time).
This reading group guide for His Favorites 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.
Taut, propulsive, and devastating, His Favorites reveals the interior life of a young woman determined to navigate the treachery in a new world. Told from her perspective many years later, the story coolly describes a series of shattering events and the system that failed to protect her. Walbert, who brilliantly explored a century of women’s struggles for rights and recognition in her award-winning A Short History of Women, limns the all-too-common violations of vulnerability and aspiration in the lives of young women in this suspenseful short novel.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. How is the epigraph from Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy, “But you may have a past already? The darkest ones come early,” a fitting opening for His Favorites?
2. Jo describes the golf course as “all of it designed for entrapment“ (page 10). What other places and situations in the novel seem built to ensnare? How so?
3. What do you think Jo’s mother is feeling after the accident? And after Jo is accepted at Hawthorne? What drives her choices for herself and for Jo?
4. Many of Jo’s memories of Hawthorne, outside of Master, involve Charlotte P. and Cynthia. What do they each mean to Jo? How do they bookend her experiences at Hawthorne?
5. Discuss the techniques Master uses to groom Jo and manipulate her circumstances at Hawthorne to his advantage. Why is he successful at Hawthorne? Why does no one intervene?
6. Why does Cynthia’s punishment at the train tracks affect Jo so much? Why didn’t she stop it earlier? Why does Lucy tell Jo that “you have to learn the rules” (page 126)? What rules, and whose?
7. Jo makes a friend in the weight room, Alex, who suggests she move off campus to the International House. Do you think she followed his advice? Why is this scene included and what is Alex’s importance to the story?
8. Jo wishes she could “stand in front of Buddy and hear him speak his judgment of me, the truth. I wanted to hear him call me a murderer” (page 132). What would hearing that from Buddy mean to Jo? What is she seeking?
9. On page 88, memory is defined as “another draft of a story”—what is the meaning of this? How is the idea of memory woven throughout the story?
10. Finally, it’s revealed that Jo is telling this story to an investigator. Who did you imagine she might be speaking to throughout the narrative? How did the shifts in perspective and tense affect your reading of Jo’s story?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Read The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, the short story itself or the complete story collection, by Alan Sillitoe. Discuss why it might have meant so much to Cynthia, and to Jo later in life.
2. His Favorites closes with the image of Jo and Stephanie, two young girls climbing a magnolia tree, “inching out on a limb they believe would not dare to break beneath the weight of them” (page 149). What does the tree evoke for the reader? What are some other trees used as metaphors in literature?
Kate Walbert is the author of six previous books of fiction: His Favorites; The Sunken Cathedral;A Short History of Women, a New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of the Year and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Our Kind, a National Book Award finalist; The Gardens of Kyoto; and the story collection Where She Went. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize stories. She lives with her family in New York City.
“His Favorites is exactly the book for our times. That Kate Walbert has managed to write a novel that is riveting, terrifying, and yet always charmingly buoyant, speaks volumes to how well she understands women. If you’re trying to figure out what’s going on, how these things happen, read this book.” —Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth
“The writing is so beautiful and exact—so startling in every sentence—that His Favorites took me way past what I thought I knew. This is a novel that shines with a laser beam, lighting what needs to be lit.” –Joan Silber, award-winning author of Improvement
“The smartest, most brutally true novel I’ve read this year. His Favorites reveals Kate Walbert’s dazzling ability to render the unsayable.” –Carolyn Cooke, author of Daughters of the Revolution
“Of all the lessons gleaned from #MeToo, one stands out as particularly sinister: before things turn treacherous, there’s a moment when predation can feel dangerously like kindness. A young person, not yet aware of his or her power, is made to feel special–and then it’s too late. Kate Walbert understands this… His Favorites begs to be read.” —Lucy Feldman, Time
“A layered, time-bending book that depicts the lingering effects of abuse…there will be no mistaking Walbert for anything but devastatingly relevant.” —Lauren Mechling, Vogue
"Kate Walbert's most powerful novel yet... fueled by gorgeous writing, as well as outrage... heartbreaking and galvanizing." —Heller McAlpin, NPR.org
"At just 150 pages long, His Favorites… is impossible to put down." —Rosa Inocencio Smith, The Atlantic
“A quick and powerful read, with a story both gripping and harrowing…you’ll read this tense, taut, and thrilling novel in the shadow of #MeToo and ache for violated women across the decades.” —Samantha Irby, Marie Claire
"An unflinching addition to the #MeToo conversation.” —Cory Oldweiler, AM New York
"A sharp look at school days that are anything but idyllic...Walbert’s slim, impactful novel, distinguished as all her work is by beautiful writing and a wealth of literary allusions, could not be more timely.” —Booklist
“Taut, powerful…Jo narrates with brutal honesty…Her story, filled with rage and regret and intensified by its searing portrait of self-aware, self-destructive teenage girls, provides a case history in male-female relationships built on an imbalance of power.” —Publishers Weekly, STARRED review
“Rendered in crystalline, matter-of-fact prose relating the narrator’s own emotional numbness and distancing, this self-aware metanovel is well timed for our current political era. Walbert packs a punch.” —Library Journal, STARRED review