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Can money buy happiness-or at least make you happier? Susan Kietzman examines this age-old question in a new light in her first published novel, "The Good Life: Will you know it when you find it?"
Ann and Mike Barons are a wealthy suburban couple with two teenagers, Nate and Lauren. They're living the perfect life far from Ann's humble Pennsylvania farmland roots. It is a life in which money can solve all problems-or so they've convinced themselves. That is, until her father's increasing dementia brings Ann's parents, Sam and Eileen, to live in the Baronses' guesthouse while Sam and Eileen wait for an apartment to open up in an assisted living facility. The paradigm shifts dramatically, and Ann and her family are forced to look more closely at their lives, their values and what really matters.
Kietzman lives in Mystic with her husband and three sons. She has a graduate degree in journalism from Boston University, worked in the magazine and newspaper publishing industries, and taught English composition at Three Rivers Community College. She is a grant writer for Mystic Seaport Museum.
The following is a conversation with the author about her debut novel.
Q. Why did you decide to write a novel about the effects of dementia on a family-and why this family, this situation?
A. It grew from this concept of "the good life" and what that means. I've thought about it for a long time. As a child, the good life was not a concept and something to be pursued. You just lived it. Having the whole summer in front of me to swim and go to beach and skip stones and run around barefoot-that was the good life.
As I aged, the good life meant being among my friends, hanging out with them, and feeling a sense of camaraderie. It wasn't until I was in my 40s that I started to think of the good life in terms of finances. It seemed like people were suddenly talking about what they had, what kinds of cars they drove, how big their house was, where they were going on vacation, what kinds of boots they bought at the mall. Was this the adult version of the good life? I wanted to explore it-not necessarily from my own viewpoint, but from someone who has all that. If you have all the money to buy all you want, are you happy?
Q. Is this novel at all autobiographical?
A. Pieces, sure. My father had Parkinson's disease and dementia. I'm well versed on the ravages of that disease and what it can do to a person. Sam is not my dad but pieces of my dad are in Sam.
Q. Ann is pretty unlikable and yet an important character in the book. It's hard to empathize with her. What's going on with her?
A. She's lost contact with everything that grounded her-mostly her parents, her childhood, and what she learned on the farm. She's lost track of those values and has gone down this path and may not even be sure how she got there and is fully immersed in Ann Barons and does what she wants to do when she wants to.
But when Ann comes face to face with her past, it reminds her that she's erred and has lost track of everything and she doesn't want to admit that at first. She was an attentive mother earlier. But when her kids became teenagers, as they naturally do, they push away their parents, and she got hurt by that and kind of pushed them away in return and pursued absolutely her own interests.
Q. Nate and Lauren are very believable teenagers. Was it easy to develop their characters?
A. I had so much fun writing those two characters. Teenagers get a bad rap, but they can be fun and really interesting. Nate isn't one of my boys, but having three boys and going through teenage years, there are pieces of them in him. I don't have a daughter, but I have a lot of friends with daughters and have been around a lot of teenage girls. It was so much fun to write about the transformation in those two kids.
Nate is more bitter than Lauren. He's afraid of his grandfather at first. The disease is scary. As he allows himself to just be with his grandfather, he sees the value in it and they forge a kind of unlikely friendship and alliance. Lauren wants to confide in her mother, but doesn't want to be interrogated by her. Eileen, just by showing she loves her and cares about her, warms her up. Food is such an issue for Lauren, it makes sense she would find comfort in preparing food-not like her mother. Eileen can't control what goes on with Sam, but she can control what goes on in the kitchen.
Q. You use humor in the novel. Sam is so endearing and says such funny things, despite his disease. Can you comment?
A. I didn't want him to be a totally depressing character. My dad happened to be a very funny man, and so, some of that obviously comes through-that sense of humor. We all have stuff to deal with, whether it's disease or death-all the challenges life has to throw at us. Also, we do better when we find a lighter side or something we can smile through or laugh at.
Q. Are there lessons you wanted to impart? Questions you wanted to raise for readers to think about?
A. I'm not trying to be a teacher or a preacher with this novel, but I guess I want people to look at that term "the good life" and see that it can be any number of things as we mature. For some people, it's being around family, if you've lived far away for a while, as we have. Or health, if you haven't been well. So, it sometimes depends on experience, but it's about a lot more than money. Money doesn't buy happiness, but the opportunity to have the good life, so to speak. It's the choices you make.
"The Good Life" by Susan Kietzman (Kensington Books) is $15, trade paperback.
Susan Kietzman will discuss and sign copies of her book around the region starting Thursday, Feb. 28, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Bank Square Books in Mystic. For information, call (860) 536-3795 or visit www.banksquarebooks.com.
Other dates include:
Saturday, March 2, from 4 to 6 p.m., Other Tiger, Westerly, R.I.; 401-596-2200, www.othertiger.com
Tuesday, March 12, 7 p.m., RJ Julia Booksellers, Madison; (203) 245-3959, www.rjjulia.com