The April Book Club selection The Deep End of the Ocean was chosen not only because it was the debut novel of Oprah’s Book Club, but also because the author Jacqueline Mitchard was chosen as a keynote speaker for the 2014 Writers Institute in Madison which several of our Writers as Readers members planned to attend.
In Mitchard’s first novel published in 1997, Beth is attending her 15th high school reunion, accompanied by her two sons and baby daughter. While she checks in at the front desk, three-year-old Ben, who was left in the care of his nine-year-old brother Vincent, disappears into the crowded Chicago hotel lobby—kidnapped. Police and friends work tirelessly in the search, but despite their efforts, the only clue, Ben’s red tennis shoe, results in a dead end. When Beth returns to her home in Madison, Wisconsin, she neglects her photography business, her husband Pat, who disappears into his work at the family restaurant, and their oldest son who sinks into guilt, rebellion and delinquency. Vincent reveals his feelings from his own point of view in a convincing teenage voice, as well as the abandonment he experiences from his mother’s obsession with the search for answers and her ensuing depression. The family is torn apart by anguish, denial, self-blame and Beth’s need to give up hope, after years of futile searching, that Ben is still alive. Her ten years of angst is described in gut wrenching detail until new information arises revealing Ben’s fate.
Our group discussed the intensity of the inciting incident, how it pushed us forward into the lengthy book. The Prologue was found to be confusing as well as the many named characters in the early chapters, most of whom were of little importance, especially when they didn’t reappear later. Some in our group were captured by the depth and resonance of Mitchard’s embodiment of depression, giving authenticity to the character of Beth, while others would have preferred a shortened reflection, thus moving into the arc of the story sooner. We talked about the author’s tragic loss of her husband prior to the books publication and how it may have contributed to the realism and length of the character Beth’s emotions, reminding us how events in our own lives color what we read and especially what we write.
Our discussion explored the point-of-view of the protagonist, what Beth knew and didn’t know about herself, and how that would limit what the character could reveal to the reader, leaving us in disagreement on Beth’s transformation at the end of the book. We were intrigued by the recurring image of the chest and its key as well as the scene of the two boys carrying the suitcase together. Although not included in the movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer, the counselor who was lending support to Vincent was found to be an important and essential element of the story. Our lively interactions about plot and character, especially when we disagreed, resulted in us all achieving a richer understanding of the author and the story, informing and improving our own writing.
Jacqueline Mitchard went on to write eight other novels, four children’s books and six young adult novels. She is currently Editor in chief of Merit Press, a new Young Adult Only imprint under the aegis of F&W Media, as well as an instructor in the MFA Creative Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She currently lives in Massachusetts with her family. Her presentation as a keynote speaker and responses to a ten-person-audience Q&A session were personal and profound and still being absorbed at the time of this writing.
For me personally, I look forward to reading many more of her books as I strive to improve my own writing and my understanding of human nature in the daily struggles that we each must endure.