Reading Guide Questions
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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
This discussion guide is followed by an interview with Jodi Picoult about Second Glance
Questions and Topics for Discussion
- With a title like Second Glance, what can we immediately assume
about the story, even before beginning reading? In what ways does this title
help us to understand that this book is not only about revisiting the past,
but also about exploring what we thought we knew, what we may have been
mistaken about, and how things look different in hindsight?
- In many ways Second Glance is a rumination on the delicate
balance between life and death, suffering and happiness, and desperation and
fulfillment. And while all of the characters must find a way to muddle
through the madness, they do it in very different ways. Ross is desperate to
die, while Ethan struggles with the painful knowledge that he will probably
die young. But despite this fact, Ethan seems to be very well adjusted -- he
has a sense of wisdom that certainly transcends his age. What might Ross
stand to learn from his nephew about the value of life? Do you think Ross
does learn anything about the nature of life and death?
- What kinds of preconceptions and assumptions are challenged throughout
this story? Meredith, for example, comes to question everything, thinking to
herself, "Maybe the sky was not really blue, maybe science did not hold all
the answers, maybe she was not happy with her life." Why is it that most
characters in this novel must have their world completely turned upside down
before they can begin to see things differently? Why do people become so
anchored in their own version of "reality" that they cannot accept or even
see things that lie outside of it?
- In what ways is Meredith's work significant in terms of this novel's
larger themes? Like Harry Beaumont, Meredith tries to make stronger,
healthier, more "normal" children. But in what ways is she different from
Harry? What motivates her to do her work? Are her motivations different, in
your opinion, from Harry's?
- Do you have any moral or ethical problems with the possibility of
genetically engineering our children? Do you believe that some degree of
genetic screening -- for disease and/or future health risks -- is
acceptable, or is it simply a dangerous practice that will inevitably lead
to a race of Stepford Wives?
- With so many stories told from so many different vantage points, it is
often difficult to glean the ultimate "truth" of any given situation in this
novel. Eli himself asks, in a conversation with Shelby, "I think people
believe what they need to, don't you?" Talk about the ways that "truth" is
subverted, revised, and distorted by the different characters. Who would you
say is the most guilty of this? What is it about the nature of truth that
allows it to be so subjective in the context of this story?
- Spencer Pike is a troubled man. He not only spends his entire life
trying to justify sterilizing people who are different from him, but he
attempts to murder a child that he believes is not his own. Although we
might be tempted to see Spencer as evil incarnate, is there anything that
might help us to understand him, or, at least to some extent, to empathize
with him? Did you feel pity for him later in the novel, as he lies dying?
Why does Meredith feel compelled to sit with this man and provide some
comfort for him before he dies, even though he tried to kill her
- Similarly, what were your feelings about Harry, Lia's father? After
hearing her father criticize the sterilization law because it does not get
rid of the "degenerates" who are now living, Lia immediately gives him the
benefit of the doubt: "He does not say this with malice; for his statement
to be hateful he would actually have to know some of the people he wants to
eliminate. He and Spencer, they are only trying to change the world, to make
is a better place for their children." Do you agree with this logic? How
harshly should we judge Harry and Spencer for their ignorance, given that
they are trying to help their children?
- Can you really only be hateful to someone you know, as Lia contends? Do
you think Lia herself maintains this opinion by the time she hangs herself,
or do you think she comes to realize something about Spencer and her father
that changes her mind?
- Near the end of the novel, Meredith and Shelby have a debate on the
nature of love and fate. While Shelby believes strongly that fate brings
people together and keeps them together, Meredith says, "Relationships
succeed and fail because of the people in them...not some karmic plan." And
yet, throughout this story there is often the sense that certain things,
relationships especially, are fated and beyond individual characters'
control. Who did you side with in this argument? Do you think people are
responsible for their romantic destinies, or do you think it is all
- Along the same lines, do you think people have one "soul mate" who they
must find in their lifetime? Are people who have not found that person
doomed to misery? How should we view Ross, a man who initially pined for his
dead wife and then changes his loyalties mid-book to a woman he met only a
few times (a woman who, incidentally, turns out to be a ghost), only to
finally turn his attention to Meredith? Who is Ross's soul mate, and why
does he have such a tough time identifying her?
- In her author's note, Jodi Picoult explains that although this story is
fiction, the Vermont Eugenics project did actually exist. Were you surprised
to find this out? As you were reading the book, did you ever suspect that
this was, indeed, a chapter in Vermont's history? How does it change your
view of this story to know that thirty-three states actually enacted
- At one point, during a visit with her father, Lia thinks to herself,
"Whether he wants to admit it or not, people do belong to each other. Once
you make a sacrifice for someone, you own part of their soul." This novel is
filled with sacrifice -- the sacrifice that a parent makes for a child, the
sacrifice that a husband makes for a wife, even the sacrifice a stranger can
make for a stranger. In what ways does this quote speak to the way sacrifice
is presented in this novel? Is sacrifice really a selfless, loving act, or,
do people do it for selfish reasons?
A Conversation with Jodi Picoult
Q: Genetic screening of fetuses is certainly a highly debated issue right
now. Why did you choose to include it in your story? What are your opinions
about this controversial topic? Should parents be able to choose the kinds of
children that they want, within reason?
A: I don't think you can discuss eugenics -- the science of breeding better
humans -- unless you consider what it's evolved into. When I was doing research
for Second Glance, I was stunned to learn that the home of the American
Eugenics Society in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, most recently housed the Human
Genome Project. That just seemed remarkably coincidental to me...unless you
consider the science behind the two projects: two very admirable scientific
endeavors that -- by their very nature -- also have a very slippery slope of
moral choices tied to them. I am personally a supporter of stem cell research
and gene therapy -- there are too many diseases that could be permanently cured,
and too many lives that could be physically improved for me to think otherwise.
However, I also realize that you can't think about genetic replacement therapy
without wondering what we're going to decide needs replacing -- a cancer cell,
of course, we'd all vote to remove...but what about one that makes a baby deaf?
What about one that predetermines frailness or short stature or a lack of
strength? Is a child who has the potential for heart disease in later life one
that you would consider aborting...when it's possible that that particular gene
might never manifest itself? It's not too far a leap to a race of genetically
engineered humans, and that's a very unsettling thought. What I wanted to
illustrate with Second Glance is the acknowledgment that although genetic
engineering is an amazing technological advance, there are emotions and moral
judgments attached to the science. No matter what side of the debate you're on,
people should be talking about it, and carefully weighing each other's
opinions -- or we just might end up with the same sort of narrow-minded
definition of what makes a "good human" that we saw during the eugenics projects
of the 1930s.
Q: Second Glance delves into a very ugly chapter in American
history and one that is probably not well known: Vermont's eugenics project of
the 1920s and 30s. Tell us about this project and how you learned about it.
A: I have to admit, I learned about it by accident. I was intent on writing a
ghost story, and my search for a fictional ghost led me to the Abenaki Indians
in Vermont, who often protest development because they allege the land is an
ancient burial ground. I started doing a little research on the Abenaki, and
found an article from the Boston Globe that discussed the Vermont
eugenics project and its effect on the Abenaki, as chronicled in the thesis of a
woman named Nancy Gallagher. The more I read, the more stunned I was: In the
1920s and 30s in Burlington, Vermont, a bunch of very progressive thinkers --
doctors, lawyers, university professors -- decided to preserve the state's rural
charm by getting rid of the people they didn't think fit the bill...namely,
people who weren't white, Protestant Yankees. They began by organizing a survey
that mapped out extended "degenerate" families they felt were a drain on the
economy, due to repeat stints in poorhouses and mental institutions and prisons.
Often, these were Abenaki Indians, French Canadians, and indigent folks.
Eventually, a law was passed that supported voluntary sterilization of these
individuals. Unfortunately, "voluntary" was not always a matter of free will --
in many cases, only two doctors had to sign off on a case to make it happen.
Hundreds of Abenaki Indians and others were sterilized before funding dried up
in the late 1930s -- thanks to the Nazis, who credited American eugenics
programs with laying the groundwork for their own plans for racial hygiene.
Well, reading this now, you probably feel a bit like I did -- shocked that
this happened only seventy years ago, shocked that it happened in America, and
shocked that I didn't know about it before. But what really resonated in me was
that it continues to happen: Today's debate over mapping the human genome and
cloning and gene replacement therapy addresses many of the same issues that were
raised by scientists who supported eugenics years ago. I wanted to explore the
idea that all sorts of things come back to haunt you -- including history. And I
wanted to show that the scientists of the 1920s and 30s were not evil Dr.
Frankensteins, but rather progressive thinkers who truly believed they were
doing the right thing at that moment. Yet at the same time I wanted to remind
people that just because science is measurable and verifiable doesn't mean it's
something we should automatically believe in.
When I was doing my research, I found many prickly people. From historians
who worried about reopening this can of worms, to Abenaki who wanted to know
why, as a white, I thought I had the right to tell this story. I wasn't always
sure that I was doing the right thing. In the end, I have always believed that
the job of a writer is to make people question their beliefs, and while I am not
judging either the eugenicists or the Abenaki in this book, I think people
deserve to know what happened, even if it's been coated in a fictional tale. I
did not tell this story for the shock value. I told it because I had to.
Q: "Could you love someone so much that, even without meaning to, you hurt
them?" This question comes from Ross, early on in the novel. Do you think there
is ever such a thing as loving too much? At what point does love become harmful?
A: Gosh, yes, I do believe that this happens all the time. People are
constantly hurting the folks they love the most -- by suffocating them with
attention, or by not giving them the freedom to grow up and learn who they are,
or by thinking they know what's best for the other person and realizing too late
this wasn't the case. There are a million and one examples of relationships that
have been smothered by too much love, rather than too little. I'd say that love
becomes harmful when you keep telling yourself that you've put your loved one
first...but in reality, everything you do and say is really about you,
and your own fear of being left behind or lost.
Q: In addition to your intensive research into this period of Vermont
history, you also conducted a lot of research in ghost hunting or paranormal
activity. Is ghost hunting for real? Did you actually go on a ghost hunt?
A: Like I said, the ghost story element came first. And to tell you the
truth, I thought I might be able to fudge some of the ghost stuff, instead of
being the research guru I tend to be. But then I realized I would indeed hear
from every reader in the country who has seen a ghost to tell me I got it all
wrong, and I decided I'd try to find someone who could, with authority, tell me
about ghost hunting. I looked on the Internet, and found the Atlantic Paranormal
Society (www.the-atlantic-paranormal-society.com), or TAPS, and left an email
for each of the founders. I figured it might take a while to find someone who
believed in ghosts, but no, I had responses from all of the guys within hours.
Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson were more than happy to speak to me about
paranormal investigation. They suggested that I come down to Rhode Island, where
they are based, so that they could take me out on a ghost hunt.
This was particularly interesting. I mean, here I was telling my children at
night there's no such thing as ghosts...but dressing in black and heading out to
an abandoned New England mental institution in the dead of a January night with
a bunch of paranormal investigators. The building was boarded up -- it had been
the pool room, and I could see the empty in-ground pool full of leaves and
debris. In the background, too, I saw what looked like fireflies -- something
the paranormal investigators said were globules, or energy changing form.
Afterward, we walked across a field where one of the buildings had burned to the
ground, with patients inside. I was walking with a sensitive (someone who can
"feel" ghosts). It was very cold out, and very clear, and our breath was visible
in front of us. Suddenly all the hair stood up on the back of my neck. Before I
could even mention this to my walking buddy, he lifted a digital camera and held
it up between our shoulders, backward. Although, to the naked eye, nothing was
behind us, in the viewfinder of the camera was a misty white wraith. A ghost
hunter will tell you that sometimes ghosts can affect film or digital
photography because of heat or magnetic energy.
From here we went on a real, live, ghost-hunting call. A couple just over the
border in Massachusetts had -- they thought -- a ghost. They wanted TAPS to come
confirm it. What truly impressed me about this group was that they made fun of
themselves plenty -- Ghostbusters jokes abounded -- and they didn't charge their
"clients." No one, they believed, should be penalized for having a ghost; in my
mind, it meant they weren't out to find something just for the money.
The house was small, and the bumps and thumps the inhabitants had heard were
in the attic, a small third-floor room with a little door and a padlock. The
TAPS guys gave me the only key, and then set a video camera up in the middle of
the attic. Often this way they will catch something -- more globules, noise,
voices. The attic was swept absolutely clean; there was nothing paranormal to be
seen. I was the last one out of the room, and I padlocked it behind me, then
slipped the key into my pocket. As the others went downstairs to talk, I checked
in the bedrooms of the couples' two children -- both were sleeping comfortably
in cribs, in rooms that were completely clean and orderly. Downstairs, the
couple described hearing calliope music at 2:00 A.M., only to find a child's toy
piano on the attic stairs. Coming home and finding all the faucets running or
the cereal boxes knocked out of the cabinets, contents spilled. Rooms that got,
suddenly, twenty degrees colder. After listening for a while, I said I was going
back upstairs. Again, I ducked into the room of the first child. Now, lining the
carpet on the edge of the crib, there were six pennies that had not been there
before, all dated between 1968 and 1973. I picked them up and put them in my
pocket and went into the next child's room to find the same thing -- six
pennies, all dated between those years. Finally I went to the attic, took out
the key, unlocked the padlock, and flipped on the lights to find a handful of
pennies beneath the video camera, all dated between 1968 and 1973. I can't tell
you that there was a ghost there, but I can tell you that if you look in your
wallet, you'll be hard-pressed to find a single penny with that date on it, much
Q: On your website, in an author's note about this book, you say that you
had wanted to write a ghost story for a long time. What is it about this
particular genre that appealed to you? Is there something about the world of the
paranormal that you thought would make for a rich metaphor? Do you believe in
A: What I love about ghosts is that -- like most things in our lives -- they
come back to haunt us. I thought tying this into a piece of historical fiction
where that was also the case would be great fun. It wasn't the gothic,
frightening ghost story I wanted to write, but the one that makes even the
dubious reader think, "Well, now that she put it that way, I suppose it
makes a certain sort of sense."
Do I believe in ghosts? Well, I believe there is a lot in this world we don't
understand. And that seeing ghosts is often an all-or-nothing thing; people
don't believe until they see one, and then -- bam! -- they're convinced. Did I
see Casper, personally? Nope. But I did see things I could not reasonably
explain, and that leads me to believe that ghosts are certainly possible. One of
the most enjoyable parts of writing Second Glance was exploring the
nature of belief. We're predisposed to think that if there isn't scientific
proof, something doesn't exist. But science isn't always right...and proof can't
always be measured in a beaker or a lab test. People say you can't believe in a
ghost, because you can't see it or touch it or capture it. By that criterion,
though, those people have to say that love doesn't exist, either...and yet most
of us have experienced that in some form or another.
Q: Second Glance is a deft example of mixing fact with fiction and
the present with the past. How did you so smoothly combine these elements in
A: When you write something with any sort of historical relevance there is
such an awesome responsibility attached to it, a driving need to get it one
hundred percent accurate. But in this case, especially, the theme of history
repeating itself made diving into the past absolutely necessary. I had a very
hard time deciding whether or not to use the names of some of the real players
in the eugenics project -- like Harry Perkins, for example. He exists in the
book, but as a character who is talked about and never met. The main cast is all
imaginary, so that their issues and tangles and choices come from my
The fluidity between the past and the present was really based in the
characters of Lia and Meredith. Lia's link is obvious, but Meredith's ties are
more intellectual. As a preimplantation genetic diagnostician, she is the
modern-day incarnation of yesterday's eugenicist: a woman who uses science to do
good, by employing techniques that -- in the wrong hands -- could be
devastating. While I was working on Second Glance I had a lot of
arguments with a friend of mine, a medical researcher who does not support stem
cell research. I do. The problem isn't the science, in my opinion; it's in who
decides what's "normal" or "optimal" or "valuable." The eugenicist's desire to
make the world a better place wasn't faulty in and of itself -- it was the way
they chose to define "better" -- and this is the sort of work ethic I tried to
instill in the character of Meredith. Her presence in this book was as a foil to
the character of Spencer Pike: Readers could literally hold Meredith's comments
about her work up to Spencer's actions and find it more difficult to dismiss him
as an outright villain. It's easy to look at history with 20/20 hindsight and
know that we made some pretty awful mistakes, it's another to read about history
and to be reminded that in some capacity, we're on the verge of making the same
mistakes today, if we aren't careful.
Q: At one point, Lia poses the question
"[W]hen you don't admit out loud that something awful has happened, who is to
say it ever did?" Say a little bit about the power of words in your novels. Do
you think it is necessary for people to talk about their traumatic experiences
to move on from them? What is the danger in just pretending that something never
A: Back before I knew I was going to write novels for a living, I studied
them as an English major. Some of the most incredible writers, to me, were the
ones that said nothing at all and managed to get their points across. (Take a
look at Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," for example -- a short
story about abortion in which neither the word nor the operation itself is ever
mentioned. Or Isak Dinesen's verbally rich short stories as compared to her
biography, Out of Africa, in which she uses the sparsest language when
discussing the greatest love of her life.) Now, when I write, there are always
places where words break down -- places where what a character needs to
communicate is simply too rich or too difficult to fit into the vessels that are
words. Sometimes talking about an experience will dilute it, make it less
powerful than it was -- such as the scene where Shelby literally loses the power
of speech after she and Eli make love for the first time. Silences, in many
spots of my books, are also the spots where the most happens to change a
character -- and this is certainly the case for Lia Beaumont, who has an entire
history that was never admitted aloud.
Q: Your novels certainly have met with great critical success. Do you have
any sense of who your readers are? Are they ever in your mind as you write?
A: Oh, yeah, I know all of you, and I'm watching you when you flip to the
last page to read the ending first! Just kidding. I don't write for my audience,
I write for myself, because if I'm intrigued I know I'm going to get all of my
readers intrigued, by default. It has been my good fortune, however, to have a
following that allows me to go wherever the heck I want to go. There are mystery
writers I know who feel very boxed in by their series character, or even by
their genre. I'm lucky enough to be able to write about Amish for one book and
then leap to witchcraft for another and then toss in some ghost hunting and then
add a dollop of medical ethics...whatever suits my fancy at the time. I do think
I have a good sense of my readers. I get hundreds of fan letters a week via
email -- from both men and women -- and many devoted readers turn out to meet me
at book signings. I think that my readers are people who like to exercise their
brains -- they don't want to digest the same story over and over; they love a
mix of mystery and drama and suspense and love story; they enjoy learning
something they might not have known along the way -- and most importantly, they
take my characters to heart as much as I do, often thinking about them long
after the book's ended. I routinely say that I am the luckiest writer on the
planet, because I really think I have the cream of the crop of available
Q: In what ways was the experience of writing this book different from
writing your other books?
A: Of all my books, this was the most technically difficult to write. First,
there are a lot of characters, so many that at the beginning it can be confusing
-- and I worried about that for the reader. I knew if they stuck with the book,
it was all going to come clear, but there was a certain amount of juggling of
point-of-view involved. Moreover, the plot itself felt like I was performing
brain surgery -- setting up all these open plugs in the first part so that I
could join them to their resolutions in the last part. There are so many twists
and turns in Second Glance, and that was doubly difficult, because when
you write about history there's a sense of inherent closure and expectation. You
read the book, and you think you know what's coming...but in fact, you don't.
What I've heard over and over about this particular book is: "I didn't know how
you were going to pull all this off...but you did." I consider that a
Q: Do you ever imagine the future for the characters in your books? Where
do you see the characters from Second Glance in ten years? Are they happy
A: The interesting thing about this book is that in spite of the fact that it
examines death from many angles, it feels pretty uplifting to me. I think we'd
all like to think that Ethan gets cured -- maybe thanks to genetic
diagnosticians like Meredith. That Shelby and Eli get married and live happily
in Comtosook. In my mind, Ross puts the past to rest enough to focus on his
future...one that includes Meredith and Lucy. And as for Lia? Well, I imagine
her waiting on the other side when Az crosses over; and I like to think of them
holding hands as they walk toward that light the paranormal investigators say we
all have waiting for us.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Washington Square Press.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.