This reading group guide for One Flight Up includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Susan Fales-Hill. 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. Introduction
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Divorce attorney India Chumley could list the rules of the legal system blindfolded. When it comes to matters of the heart, however, the laws aren’t so cut and dry. India tries to do everything right—she puts her soul into her work, commits to a kind and loving boyfriend, and takes care of her alcoholic mother. But when India’s girlfriends all begin to cross the line into infidelity—Abby falls for her toddler’s music teacher, Monique hooks up with an EMT at the hospital where she works, and Esme is always ready for anything
—the rules become a little blurry. So when India’s ex-fiancé—the love of her life and best sex she’s ever had—shows up and wants her back, she’s torn between the love she has now and the love she can’t forget. Questions for Discussion
1. Early on in the story, Elizabeth tells India “it’s because [she’s] such a stickler for the rules that [her] life lacks poetry.” How does this comment foreshadow the rest of the book? What do you personally think of this statement? Does one have to be spontaneous and passionate (and at times reckless) to really live? Why or why not?
2. Have you ever been tempted to cheat on your spouse or partner? Did the fates of the protagonists of One Flight Up
remind you that you were right to refrain or make you wish you had taken a walk on the wild side?
3. Which of the men of One Flight Up
would be your top pick for a fling and why?
4. India is very clearly the protagonist of the novel. Why did the author choose to alternate points of view between the various characters instead of focusing solely on India’s perspective?
5. In many different media, men are typically the cheaters and the liars. Why do you think Fales-Hill constructed such a clear role reversal in One Flight Up
6. Which of the four main female characters do you relate to most? Why? How would you
have handled her particular situation?
7. India rents a secret apartment of her own, despite living with Julian. She says it’s just a precaution, but then it turns into all four women’s place of infidelity. Why do you think India really rented the apartment in the first place? Would have you done the same thing?
8. Sage points out that women “trash their own dreams to make everyone else thrive.” Do you think Sage is right? Why or why not?
9. Compare and contrast Abby’s relationships with her husband Nathaniel and lover Sage, with India’s relationships with Julian and Keith. Which of those four romantic relationships do you think was healthiest and why? How would you have acted—or not acted—differently than Abby and India?
10. The idea that “nothing’s perfect” appears frequently in the story. Cite some examples where characters use this reasoning to let others get away with things. Are the characters consciously settling in these instances, or do you think they are in denial or acting reasonably? What do you think “perfect” means in a relationship?
11. What do you think the title of this book, One Flight Up
12. The theme of second chances is ever present in many of the relationships in the book. Discuss all the second chances the characters get throughout the story. Do you think the chances were deserved? What would you have done? Do you believe in second chances? Why or why not?
13. Who is your “one who got away?” What would you do if given the chance to revisit the situation? Enhance Your Book Club
1. India and her friends live in a somewhat glamorous version of New York City, going to the ballet, theater, luncheons, and fancy restaurants. Choose a similarly glamorous event to re-create for your book club and dress up for the occasion!
2. Chocolate appears in the story multiple times as India’s secret vice. Ask each member to bring a different chocolate confection and have a dessert tasting. If you really want to go all out, crack open a bottle of champagne to celebrate your innocent indulgence.
3. India, Abby, Monique, and Esme have very open and honest friendships and all admit their faults and bad decisions without hesitation. Sit in a circle for some bonding time with your fellow book clubbers and share something honest, and perhaps less than glowing, about yourself. A Conversation with Susan Fales-Hill1. You’ve created four very different and complicated female main characters in One Flight Up. Did you model any of them after people in your life? Which character do you relate to most powerfully and why?
Writing is plagiarism from life. All my characters are fictional, but they are amalgams of real people I’ve known, engaged in situations and dilemmas I’ve witnessed or experienced personally. Each and every one of the women reflects a piece of me, or someone very close to me. The character I most identify with is India because of her journey. A child of emotional chaos, she wants desperately to control her future, and her wayward heart. She comes to accept though, that she cannot escape her upbringing and her psychological heritage. When you were raised by “Heathcliff and Catherine,” you can never be truly comfortable in placid “Leave It to Beaver” domesticity. Your parents’ longings haunt you all your life, and their passions pulse through you with the insistence of a blood legacy. You can deny them, sublimate them, try to ignore them, but they are always there, at the core of your being. India comes to embrace not recklessness, but adventure and mystery. We begin with a woman who wants to run her personal life according to a five-year plan, and end with one who is willing to, as Rilke put it, “live the questions.” 2. India is very clearly the protagonist of the novel. Why did you choose to alternate points of view between the various characters instead of focusing solely on India’s perspective? What did Abby’s, Monique’s, and Esme’s experiences offer the reader in regard to their relationship with India?
Originally, in a long-ago first draft that is now lining bird cages across New York and the greater metropolitan area, each woman spoke in her own voice. That CLEARLY didn’t work (hence, the draft was summarily tossed by yours truly). Though India is at the center of the piece, I wanted the other women to be fully realized characters in their own right, seen in their own environments. They are not meant to be mere satellites and foils, and I wanted the world of the novel to feel full and rich as opposed to myopically focused on India. In my own life, I see great parallels between my path and those chosen by my closest friends, but there are also great contrasts stemming from our backgrounds, upbringings, etc. . . . The exploration of the similarities and contrasts is what I find intriguing, and hopefully the reader will too. If not, here’s to lining another bird cage. 3. What inspired you to write One Flight Up? Was there a message you wanted to send to your readers? If so, what did you hope to accomplish?
The topic of infidelity is one that has intrigued me for most of my adult life because I’ve witnessed it and experienced it in different forms through my dating years (I’ll leave out details to protect “the guilty”). One of the things that frustrated me after I got married was the lack of straight talk to women in either books or magazine articles about the complexities and contradictions of marriage, e.g., that you might be crazy for your husband but still have lingering feelings for that maddening ex-boyfriend; that now that you’re settled, you exude confidence and attract men who never came near you when you were single. Only now, they’re just “tantalus fruit”: you can only look but not touch. Where were they on all those Saturday nights you were snuggling up to a bucket of popcorn and watching a movie on TMC? I wanted to write about women’s wayward longings. In terms of “message,” I’m with the fellow who said, “If you want to deliver a message, send a telegram.” The book is an exploration of the role of passion in the lives of four friends. Hopefully it will offer the reader a fun escape from the routines that deaden us all. We are ALIVE and aren’t we fortunate? 4. Why did you decide to write a story with such strong racial implications?
I had a white anglo-Saxon Protestant father whose family has been here since the seventeenth century, and a black mother whose family emigrated here from Haiti at the turn of the twentieth century. Theirs was a quintessentially American love story and pairing. They had to live in exile in Europe for the first five years of their marriage in order to escape the scrutiny and the relentless “assaults”—from attacks in the press to individuals sending hate mail. Though they never complained and they made light of the indignities they’d suffered (my father was fired from his job and was kicked out of the social Register for marrying my mother), their history haunts me and guides my steps.
The greatest fault line in this country remains the racial divide, the battle between the so-called races is our version of tribalism. I have lived this contradiction my entire life and my parents raised me to embrace all of my heritages, and to be a voice for under-represented people of color. (Violins and trumpets, please!) Almost all my writing, be it for television (A Different World, Linc’s
) or magazines, has addressed race and race relations (okay, maybe not that piece about shopping with a Park Avenue Princess). It is a pleasure to give voice to the remarkable people I was privileged to know, and to present a multifaceted view of the American social landscape. With One Flight Up,
I didn’t set out to write a story with strong racial implications, I was just trying to capture worlds I’ve known and depict life as I experience it. My friends are a rainbow coalition, but at the end of the day, we’re all human beings. 5. What was your creative process like, writing a full-length novel compared to writing your memoir, Always Wear Joy? What did the two experiences have in common in terms of your emotional involvement as the author?
The creative process is always the same: glue your derriere to the seat at the library and WRITE, dammit, WRITE!!! Writing is rewriting and, in both cases, there was a weak first draft followed by a much stronger second one. AWJ was more emotionally wrenching to work on because I began it when my mother’s days were numbered (she had been on a respirator for over a year) and she passed away in the middle of the process. I began the second draft after she’d left us. I cried every day, sometimes in the middle of the library (I’m lucky security didn’t come to cart me away, blubbering lunatic that I was!!!). One Flight Up
proved a harder nut to crack creatively. I did many revisions to make the story layered, and believe it or not, India was my greatest challenge. It was scary to show her vulnerability. 6. Throughout the book, you’re constantly challenging the reader’s beliefs about love. Do you think it’s more important to have passion or security? Did you want to push your reader one way or the other?
I am neither a politician nor a cult leader, so it is not my job to push the reader in any direction. I present human behavior, human frailty, and the reader decides what they think of these characters. Personally, I believe everyone is different and has different needs. I can’t dictate other peoples’ bliss (though I can guarantee that a Teuscher truffle or Maison du Chocolat praline will send anyone to Heaven!!!). In my own life, I need both—passion and security—and I don’t think the two are necessarily mutually exclusive. (And by the way, there isn’t just passion for one’s mate, there is passion for one’s work, passion for a fantastic work of art or piece of theater, passion for a cause, passionate love for one’s child.) I do want to caution women against the kind of obsessive love that prevents them from accomplishing all that they can in their professional lives (think Camille Claudel, the lover of Rodin, who went insane). Then again, people who experience that often would do it all over again, so who am I to question? We all have our paths, but I do agree with Sophia Loren that “Mistakes are the price of an interesting life.” 7. India eats chocolate whenever she’s upset or stressed. What’s your vice in those kinds of situations?
It used to be shopping but then I went cold turkey. When I lived in Los Angeles, it was coconut butter cream frosting from the “Sweet Lady Jane” bakery (umhhhh, the memories, I’d strip an entire 10-inch cake of the sticky sweet stuff!!!!). Now I’d have to say, that boring as it sounds, it’s a long massage, an afternoon of pure procrastination, or having a good cry on the phone with my best friend. I also take myself to a nice hotel (the St. Regis is a favorite because it’s a turn-of-the-century jewel, and we held my mother’s memorial there, so I feel her spirit fills the place) to have a glass of wine ALL BY MYSELF and listen to the pianist and think about life. It’s a luxury that makes me feel very fortunate indeed. 8. The reader doesn’t see much of the male characters’ perspectives in the story. Why did you choose to keep a distance from their thoughts and feelings? How do you think the story would have been different had you shown the situation from their points of view?
One of my inspirations for this novel was Clare Boothe Luce’s brilliant, mordant play, The Women.
I felt it captured eternal verities not only about the “fair sex” but also about the various social castes at a certain point in time. It also addressed a central truth: men and women behave very differently and think differently, and women have their own society within a society, in which they share their secrets and their hopes and their longings. The men in our lives are really at the periphery of these relationships. The conversation changes when they are present. The book was never intended to be about the men, it is about the women and how they evolve. Like the movie Rashomon,
the story from the men’s perspective would have been entirely different, and, needless to say, with them at the center, there would have been very little dialogue!!! 9. India’s relationship with her overly dramatic, alcoholic mother is one of the most powerful bonds in the story. What did you want to say about love by showing their relationship in such detail? You have a young child, how do you think motherhood has affected your perception of love?
One person’s overly dramatic is another person’s Marcia Brady. India’s mom seemed normal to me, having grown up around actresses (I once took offense to a boyfriend’s assessment of my mother as “very theatrical.” Yes, that’s why I’m still in therapy!) There is no love more powerful than that between a mother and child, however flawed the parent may be. India’s mother is probably my favorite character in the book because of all the contradictions she embodies—perceptive yet self-involved, strong yet a doormat, over the top, yet very vulnerable, a survivor, yet utterly impractical. Though she’s certifiable, she loves her daughter passionately. In spite of her exasperation, India understands and appreciates the depth of her mother’s adoration for her. It’s a burden at times, to be sure, but she wades through the absurdities because she knows the goodness at the center of it all. Their relationship also is not about color. They are mother and daughter, it’s the rest of the world that harps on their differences in shade. They are dealing with the issues of parent and child. Elizabeth was also the right person to raise a biracial child because she was unafraid to flout convention, and she engaged India’s black grandmother in the process (her only real failing as the white mother of a black child was that she just never figured out how to comb her daughter’s hair). There is a passage in which India remembers confronting the “black affinity group” at her school by reciting a Maya Angelou poem. I describe her as summoning her mother’s chutzpah to perform the poem her grandmother taught her. This to me says it all: both of these women poured themselves into India. It is as a result of BOTH of their teachings and examples that she is able to navigate in the world.
I was always emotional and a mush pot, but having a child has cracked me wide open. Now, it’s downright pathetic. I empathize with almost everyone and cry at almost anything. If the point of life is to grow in wisdom and compassion, the birth of my daughter landed me in the “right school.”
The best part is, I get to lavish upon my daughter all the love my mother gave me and her mother gave her. The chain is unbroken, the line continues. When I’m at the ballet or theater with my daughter, or sitting under the caricature of my mother at Sardi’s restaurant with her, or frankly just lying beside her while she drifts off to sleep in her pink room, I feel like the luckiest woman who ever lived. 10. What are you working on now? Do you plan to write another novel?
I am throwing myself back into the fire for the next novel, and working on some projects in other mediums as well, so stay tuned. Now that my daughter’s in school full time, there is no excuse not to write, write, and write some more. Thank you for your time and attention. Now I’m off to have a truffle.