The Hole We’re In by Gabrielle Zevin: A Reader’s Guide
1. In the first chapter, “A June and Six Septembers,” we meet Roger Pomeroy, a forty-two-year-old assistant principal at a Christian high school. How does his decision to go back to school for a PhD influence all that follows? What does this choice reveal about him as a husband and a father?
2. What is the significance of the months as chapter names in Part I, The Red House?
3. In the second chapter, “October,” Roger’s wife, George, observes that “middle-class folks were forced to go nuts in their living rooms; the rich got to do it at spas” (p. 17). Is this just an amusing contemplation or does it suggest something significant about George? How does George cope with the escalating preparations for Helen’s wedding and the house painting debacle? At this point in the book, would you say that George is depressed?
4. When we first meet her as a high school cheerleader, Patsy, George and Roger’s youngest daughter, is a “little blonde about to crash into the gravel” (p. 30). What are the actual consequences of this moment, and how does this line resonate figuratively later on?
5. In chapter three, “November,” Helen Pomeroy, Patsy’s older sister, is introduced: “This bottomless wanting had started from her first breath . . .” (p. 39). Would you describe Helen as a selfish person? A materialistic one? Is Helen more like Roger or George? What, if any, is the extent of Helen’s responsibility for what happens to Patsy, Vincent, and even George?
6. In “January,” the fifth chapter, we learn a bit about Vincent, who is a graduate film student at NYU. What is his place within the Pomeroy family? How would you say his sufferings compare with Patsy’s?
7. In “February,” Roger accompanies his PhD advisor, Carolyn Murray, to New York. Why does Carolyn choose Roger, and what are the dynamics of their relationship? Do you think that Roger has been tricked by Carolyn?
8. Why doesn’t George accept the job promotion even though it potentially afforded “the power to start digging them out of the hole they were all in? It seemed like too much to even dream of” (p. 68).
9. After Patsy is sent to her grandmother’s house in Tennessee, she “prayed and reflected and what she’d come to was this: people did what they could live with; all sin was relative” (p. 100). Discuss Patsy’s viewpoint. Would the other members of her family agree with this statement?
10. “Like Patsy, Roger had spent most of the summer in prayer, though his prayers were a bit more adamant and significantly more specific than hers” (p. 106). Does God provide answers to Roger? Where does this leave the rest of his family at the end of Part I? Which of the characters would you describe as religious? Why or why not? Does money or religion play more of a motivating role in this book? Explain.
11. Part II begins six years later with Patsy’s return from Iraq. Discuss the episode in the airport where Patsy’s sand globe is confiscated by airport security. Other than the sand globe, what other things has Patsy missed and/or lost in the last six years? Does Patsy at age twenty-three seem older or younger than her years?
12. Why is there a hole in Patsy’s backyard? Compare Magnum French with Patsy’s father, Roger Pomeroy. Would you say that Magnum is a better man than Roger?
13. Consider Patsy’s two friends from Iraq, Buddy and Smartie. What is significant about these relationships? Compare Smartie to the other male characters in the book: e.g. Patsy’s boyfriend, Harland, her husband, Magnum, and her brother, Vincent.
14. Patsy spends time at the Slickmart poking holes in water bottles. She also finds “a tiny hole you could peek through and view the store from above” (p. 184). Why does the stain on the ceiling affect George so deeply? Patsy tells the Sheriff that she didn’t know what she had been thinking when she tried to save the Jesus stain. What do you think Patsy was thinking?
15. Part III takes place in the near future. How does George handle the news of her cancer diagnosis? Have her coping skills changed?
16. Consider the following quote: “‘At some point, Vincent, we have to overcome the disaster of our parentage’” (p. 233). Have any of the Pomeroy siblings overcome this family “disaster”? Discuss Tolstoy’s famous line from War and Peace, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” as it relates to the Pomeroy family.
17. “‘So, what is it George? Why do they hate us so much? Because it’s not just Vinnie. It’s Patsy, too! I’ve prayed over it, and I’ve asked God, and I just don’t understand’” (p. 247). What accounts for Roger’s blind spot? Is George any more enlightened? By the end of the book, which parent did you feel more sympathy for?
18. Patsy decides to sacrifice her hard earned money in order to protect her daughter at the clinic. Though she never learns of her own mother’s betrayal (which led to Patsy’s expulsion years before), how might there be poetic justice in her actions here? What kind of a parent does Patsy turn out to be?
19. As Patsy is watching her father’s burial, “it occurs to her that she has spent most of her life digging herself out of or into one hole or another. And then in the end, they just lower you into the ground anyway. She whispers a question, kind of like a prayer, if she were the praying sort, to no one in particular, ‘How in the world do you ever get out?’” Does Patsy succeed in escaping from the hole? Will Patsy’s daughter escape the hole?
20. Britney Spears’s song “…Baby One More Time” is used as the novel’s epigraph. Where else does the song appear and how does it resonate throughout the story?21. References and allusions to holes appear throughout the novel. What is the author implying, and what do you make of the significance of the title? What ultimately is “the hole we’re in”?
22. The title could almost serve as a headline for the state of the entire country today—in what sense do forces beyond the Pomeroys’ control (credit card laws, terrorism, politics, etc.) contribute to their struggle? Did this book make you feel better or worse about your own circumstances and choices?
Suggestions for further reading:
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen; American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld; The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck; On Beauty by Zadie Smith; A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore; A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe; Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen; The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington; The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne; The Hours by Michael Cunningham; Gilead by Marilynne Robinson; The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver;Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates; The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot