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From the winner of the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction comes a tender and funny debut novel, set over one emotionally charged weekend at an animal sanctuary in western Kansas, where maternal, romantic, and community bonds are tested in the wake of an estranged daughter’s homecoming.

The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals is in trouble.

It’s late 2016 when Ariel discovers that her mother Mona’s animal sanctuary in Western Kansas has not only been the target of anti-Semitic hate crimes—but that it’s also for sale, due to hidden financial ruin. Ariel, living a new life in progressive Lawrence, and estranged from her mother for six long years, knows she has to return to her childhood home—especially since her own past may have played a role in the attack on the sanctuary. Ariel expects tension, maybe even fury, but she doesn’t anticipate that her first love, a ranch hand named Gideon, will still be working at the Bright Side.

Back in Lawrence, Ariel’s charming but hapless fiancé, Dex, grows paranoid about her sudden departure. After uncovering Mona’s address, he sets out to confront Ariel, but instead finds her grappling with the life she’s abandoned. Amid the reparations with her mother, it’s clear that Ariel is questioning the meaning of her life in Lawrence, and whether she belongs with Dex or with someone else, somewhere else.

Acclaimed writer Pam Houston says that “Mandelbaum is wise beyond her years and twice as talented,” and The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals poignantly explores the unique love and tension between mothers and daughters, and humans and animals alike. Perceptive and funny, moving and eloquent, and ultimately buoyant, Mandelbaum offers a panoramic view of family and forgiveness, and of the meaning of home. Her debut reminds us that love provides refuge, and underscores our similarities as human beings, no matter how alone or far apart we may feel.

This reading group guide for The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Becky Mandelbaum. 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

The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals is in trouble.

In late 2016, Ariel discovers that her mother Mona’s animal sanctuary has not only been the target of anti-Semitic hate crimes but is also for sale due to hidden financial ruin. Ariel, living a new life in progressive Lawrence and estranged from her mother for six long years, knows she must return to her childhood home in western Kansas. Ariel anticipates the tense reunion with her mother but is surprised to find that her first love, a ranch hand named Gideon, is still living at the Bright Side.

Meanwhile, in Lawrence, Ariel’s charming but hapless fiancé, Dex, grows paranoid about her mysterious departure. All he knows is that Ariel has gone to see her mother, a woman he’s heard nothing about. He uncovers Mona’s address and sets out to confront Ariel but arrives to find her grappling with the life she’s abandoned. While making amends with her mother, it’s clear that Ariel is questioning the meaning of her life in Lawrence and whether she belongs with Dex or with someone else, somewhere else.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. After Mona’s neighbor Sydney defaces the Bright Side with swastikas and anti-Semitic messages, Mona thinks: “How angry she was that Sydney had taken from her the one thing she’d always had: courage” (p. 31). Where do you think Mona gets her courage from? Why do you think Sydney’s crime took away her courage?

2. When Ariel is eighteen, she leaves home to attend the University of Kansas. What do you make of Ariel and Mona’s disagreement about Ariel leaving home? Based on their individual and collective histories, why do you think each of them reacted the way they did?

3. It’s revealed at different points in the book that both Gideon and Mona go to visit Ariel at college. What are their experiences of their trips to Lawrence? Why do neither of them make contact with Ariel? Do you think they tried hard enough to bring Ariel back into the fold? Why or why not?

4. Early on, Ariel can hear Mona’s voice in her head saying, “The pursuit [of life] shouldn’t be happiness, it should be helpfulness. Goodness” (p. 23). How do you think Mona came to this understanding of life’s purpose? How does it affect the decisions she makes in her own life? And how does it affect the way she tries to raise Ariel?

5. During a fight between Mona and her husband, he accuses her of being an absent mother and she responds that he’s “putting an untrue story onto our lives” (p. 56). What are some of other “untrue” stories that characters impose on one another? Are these honest mistakes, or the result of intentional mischaracterizations?

6. Gideon, the Bright Side’s ranch hand, is of Mexican American heritage and was born in Texas. In the beginning of the novel, Big John is preoccupied with making sure he’s “legal,” and later Ariel remembers a time years ago when “the guy at the gas station asked for Gideon’s green card” (p. 145). How is Gideon’s experience living in Kansas depicted in the novel? How does he handle the xenophobia he encounters? How do others around him handle it?

7. Sydney and Ariel used to be close, until they had a falling out in high school. Discuss their falling out and Sydney’s behavior in adulthood (his “date” with Joy, his blog, and his political views). Why do you think he ultimately burned the Bright Side’s barn?

8. Mona’s childhood was not easy. Her father was an alcoholic and emotionally abusive. As an adult, both her husband and daughter left her—albeit at different times and for different reasons. How do you think these experiences have affected Mona, and how does she cope with these instances of mistreatment and abandonment?

9. After Ariel tries to kiss Gideon, she hopes to apologize, thinking “she had confused the sensation of missing home with the sensation of missing him” (p. 188). What are all the parts that make up “home” for Ariel? Is her eventual homecoming what she expects it to be?

10. Describe Dex and Ariel’s relationship. How did they meet and how has their relationship evolved? How are they good for each other? Do you think their relationship lasted past the end of the novel?

11. Once Dex is out of Lawrence and performing manual labor at the sanctuary, he has a revelation that “masculinity was a small, quivering thing” (p. 226). What are the different representations of masculinity in this book? Is there one type that’s prized above others? How are masculinity and femininity perceived at the sanctuary, where the work is dirty and tough but the job is based in caretaking?

12. The novel is bookended by instances of Mona reacting to the conservatism of her neighbors—stealing Big John’s pro-Trump yard sign and getting into a physical altercation with a cashier. Why do you think Mona lashes out in these instances? Do you think her actions are justified? How would you handle bridging these community divides?

13. Even though the Bright Side is in trouble, Mona refuses Big John’s offer to buy the sanctuary and Coreen’s offer of financial assistance to keep it up and running. Why do you think Mona has such trouble accepting help? What do you think eventually happens to the Bright Side?

14. When Mona and Ariel finally reconcile, the chapter ends by comparing them to animals housed at the sanctuary, saying, “they [Mona and Ariel] were animals, weren’t they? Bodies that sought the comfort of other bodies, that needed affection to survive” (p. 319). What similarities do you see between the needs of the animals at the Bright Side and the needs of the people who take care of them? How are the animals like humans—and the humans like animals?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. There are many animal shelters and sanctuaries throughout the country that cater to any number of animals: dogs, cats, rabbits, pigs, goats, horses, donkeys—and even animals more exotic like turkeys, coyotes, wolves, chimpanzees, and elephants! Find a shelter close to you and volunteer as a group.

2. Consider reading another book that celebrates the lives of animals: Horse Crazy by Sarah Maslin Nir, H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, The Language of Butterflies by Wendy Williams, or Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz.

3. At one point, Joy tells Dex that Ariel will likely never move back home, because “You can miss something like crazy and still never want to go back” (p. 222). What are some things you miss about being a kid? About past homes you’ve lived in? What are the things you don’t miss?

4. The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals is preoccupied with the push and pull of individual autonomy versus familial obligation. Discuss as a group where you fall on that spectrum. Did you grow up in a family that valued autonomy or the strength of the collective? Would you do anything for your family? Are there limits or boundaries to your familial obligation?

A Conversation with Becky Mandelbaum

Q: Congratulations on publishing your debut novel, The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals! What has the experience of publishing this book been like? How much different has it been from the experience of writing the book?

A: Thank you! I’m so grateful and humbled that this story is now a book in the world. It always feels like magic when a project completes the journey from my brain onto a printed page and into the hands of readers. It’s surreal.

Although Bright Side isn’t my first book—I have a collection of stories, Bad Kansas—this publishing experience felt very new to me, and completely different from the experience of writing the book. Despite every single person showing nothing but kindness and support, I still find the world of publishing intimidating, which is not the case for writing.

Writing has always been my Room of Requirement. I go there when I need a break from the world, or when things feel overwhelming or hopeless. I love everything about writing and feel at home when I’m absorbed in my work. There’s nothing more liberating than letting loose on the page.

Publishing, then, is a complete 180. It’s vulnerable, public-facing, and makes me want to retreat. I imagine most writers feel this way. If the world were a party, writers would be the kids in the corner whispering to the dog, counting the minutes until it’s socially acceptable to go home and read in bed. In publishing, we have to be the person in the center of the room, dancing and singing, waving a book in each hand. That’s a hard leap, but it’s a worthy one if it helps connect the book to more readers.

Q: The backdrop of The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals is the election of Donald Trump. Why did you choose to set the novel in the wake of his election? What was your own experience like in November 2016?

A: I started this book when I was an undergrad at the University of Kansas and returned to it in the months following the 2016 election while caretaking a ranch that belongs to the writer Pam Houston. I was working with animals every day while news of the election spewed in from the outside world. My day-to-day life taking care of them was so peaceful and filled with the kindness of the animals—it was hard to square what was going on at the ranch, in my immediate life, with what was going on around the country.

As I was reworking the manuscript I’d started years before, the election kept inserting itself onto the page. It was everywhere, the only thing I could think about and the only thing people could talk about. Including it in the book felt like the only way to stay with the project, so I let it in. Once I did, I realized there were so many rich parallels between what was happening at the sanctuary and what was happening in the world. While the themes of caretaking, forgiveness, and unconditional love extend beyond the realm of any singular political moment, I do think they speak to what happened in 2016 as well as what’s happening in 2020.

Q: Publishers Weekly gave a glowing, starred review of your book, saying that “In Mandelbaum’s bighearted, emotionally intelligent tale, the love for animals proves irresistible.” In Bright Side, the animals function as characters in and of themselves. Do you have pets? Did you know you wanted to write a book about animals, or did they just naturally insert themselves in your writing?

A: I’ve been obsessed with animals since I was little, and I spent the last few years taking care of other peoples’ pets. Pet-sitting was how I kept my living costs low so I could have more time to write. It’s funny, because publishing this book afforded me the stability to finally adopt my own dog. I just signed a year-long lease for the first time in five years and now live with two dogs.

I volunteered at an animal sanctuary during college as part of a service learning trip. The sanctuary was chaotic, but I was in total admiration of the woman who ran it. She’d dedicated her whole life to this massive shelter operation that was clearly taking its toll on her physically, emotionally, and financially. She was a severe, no-nonsense person, but around the animals she was a complete softy. Everything about her life fascinated me: her commitment to the animals and how it affected her relationships with people, the logistics of her day-to-day life, the story of how she became who she was. The book grew from this fascination. I wondered, what would it look like if she had a family? How would that work?

Q: At its heart, Bright Side is a book about the relationship between a mother and a daughter. What interests you about this dynamic? Were there any other mother-daughter books you looked to while writing yours? Do you have any recommendations of other mother/daughter stories that are close to your heart?

A: It might be hard to tell from this book, but my mom and I have an incredible relationship. My dad left when I was little, so my mom has always been my number one support system. She’s my best friend and my biggest cheerleader. She’s who I call first with good news, and who I call first with bad news. She is the epitome of unconditional love—sometimes to a fault—and if there’s any of her in this book, it’s in Mona’s unrelenting dedication to the animals.

One of my family members suffers from addiction, and only several drafts into this book did I realize that Mona’s devotion to the animals could work as a metaphor for my mother’s devotion to this person. She has sacrificed everything to help this person—her time, energy, and money. Her freedom. I think often about the line between helping and hurting, and how love gets in the way of drawing this line with clarity. The Bright Side explores this line, how we dance around it, how it shapes the other lines in our life.

There are so many great mother-daughter books out there. Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid, Marlena by Julie Buntin, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, and Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden are a few I read or reread while writing and revising this manuscript.

One of the best mother-daughter stories I’ve ever read is The First Day by Edward P. Jones. It captures the fusion of love, shame, embarrassment, admiration, and frustration that hums at the core of any authentic child-parent relationship.

Q: We get three perspectives in the book: Mona, Ariel, and Dex. How did you choose whose perspective to include? What does Dex’s point of view bring to the table? Did you consider giving any other characters a dedicated perspective?

A: When I started this book in college, I wrote only Ariel’s and Dex’s perspectives. In these early drafts, the book focused on their love story, so it made sense to only hear from them. When I rewrote the book in 2016, the mother-daughter story between Mona and Ariel became more central than the love story between Ariel and Dex, but I didn’t adjust the book’s structure to reflect this change.

I think it was my editor, Marysue Rucci, who suggested I add some chapters from Mona’s point of view. Once I started writing, I realized how badly I wanted to hear Mona’s voice. She had been pounding on my brain the whole time, asking to be let out. I’m really glad she has her own chapters now.

In retrospect, it also seems obvious that we need Mona’s perspective as a counterpoint to Dex’s. Mona and Dex both know a different version of Ariel—versions that don’t overlap until partway through the book. Mona knew Ariel for the first eighteen years of her life, but Dex has known Ariel since she started her new life in Lawrence. Their perspectives give us a full vision of Ariel, as others perceive her.

Q: The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals takes place entirely in Kansas, and you’re originally from Kansas. How did you go about creating a sense of place in a landscape you’re familiar with? Was it hard to write about your home state or did it come naturally? Did writing Bright Side feel different from writing Bad Kansas, your debut story collection that’s also set in the state?

A: I hardly wrote about Kansas when I lived there, but since leaving it’s the only place I want to explore in my work. When I started the book, the sanctuary was set in rural Texas, and Ariel and Dex lived in Austin. I’d been to Austin a couple times and was so in awe of it, I guess I wanted to write a whole book set there. When I returned to the book in 2016, I realized I needed to set it in Kansas, which is my true home.

I’ve never lived in western Kansas, but I wrote the book while living in rural Colorado and edited it while living in rural Washington, so St. Clare—which is a fictional place— is based roughly on those small towns, overlaid onto the topography of western Kansas. Writing about Lawrence was a blast because I love Lawrence so much. It’s my favorite town in the world.

Writing this book felt very different from writing Bad Kansas, but not because of place or setting. Writing short stories is hard, but it turns out writing a novel is much harder. Like, twenty times harder. I also prefer to write in first-person point of view, and typically lean into voice. Bright Side is all third-person, so that shift was new for me. I find it much easier to capture the spirit of a person when writing through their voice.

Q: Your book plays with themes of homecoming. What do you find intriguing about that concept? Have you had many homecomings in your own life? How did you approach writing about this complicated concept in your novel?

A: Ever since leaving Kansas, I’ve thought and written obsessively about home, both as a physical location and as a concept. I moved around a lot when I was very young—by the time I was eight I’d lived in seven houses—so when my mom finally settled my brothers and me in Wichita, that house and Kansas became deeply tied to my notion of home. Despite this attachment, I’ve moved numerous times in the last few years, hopping between house-sitting gigs and jobs in National Parks. I often feel like I’m still searching for my forever home but have come to accept that home can also operate as a state of mind. I can be at home wherever I feel loved and safe, regardless of physical location. Still, I miss Kansas.

My experience of constantly moving and having to start over in a place is definitely part of Bright Side. Mona moving her family from Wichita to St. Clare and Ariel moving from St. Clare to Lawrence are both narratives about what it means to enter a new space, and how setting shapes the person we become. Ariel would have become a different person had she stayed in St. Clare, just as Mona would have become a different person had she stayed in Wichita. I think both women grew and learned when they moved but also lost a part of themselves that would have blossomed had they stayed put.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals? How would you hope they reconsider their own relationships and purpose in light of what they’ve read in your pages?

A: My hope is that readers will consider their own caretaking roles, whatever they may be. We are all responsible for something, whether it’s the people in our lives, our work, our home, our land, our community, our pets, etc. Are we approaching these roles with kindness and patience? Are we putting aside ego and considering what’s best for the other party rather than what will make us feel righteous or important?

We can expand this mode of thinking to politics, too. I spend so much time thinking about what I want, and what’s best for people who share my values, but it’s more difficult to think about the needs of someone whose values, lifestyle, or interests don’t align with my own. While it’s essential to stand up for what we believe in, it’s also important to remember we are each one point on a web of humanity that has nearly eight billion other points. We’re all here together. If we are charged with caring for our fellow citizens, our country, our environment, then we have to remember that other peoples’ needs are as valid as our own.

Q: Are you working on anything now? And, if so, can you tell us about it?

A: I’m working on a novel about female friendship. The book follows two girls, Laney and Rue, as they come of age in Wichita in the early aughts. Laney is cerebral, bookish, and shy while Rue is a trouble-making extrovert. Despite how different they are, the two form a deep connection. The book is about how outside forces—their faith, men, class differences—challenge this connection throughout their adolescence and early adulthood. It’s jam-packed with early 2000s nostalgia, plus lots of potty humor. It’s also a story about mothers and daughters, Judaism, and writing.
Evan Holmstrom

Becky Mandelbaum is the author of Bad Kansas, winner of the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the 2018 High Plains Book Award for First Book. Her work has appeared in One StoryThe SunThe Missouri ReviewThe Georgia Review, Electric Literature, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and has been featured on Medium. She has received fellowships from Writing by Writers, a residency from The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and has taught at Seattle’s Hugo House. Originally from Kansas, she currently lives in Washington State. The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals is her first novel.

Gabra Zackman knows romance. Her clever and “thrilling romantic caper” (Library Journal) Bod Squad series was inspired by the more than one hundred romance and women’s fiction titles she has narrated for audio. She divides her time between her native New York City and Denver, Colorado.

"Narrators Gabra Zackman, Rebekkah Ross, and Tim Paige capture the characters in this heartwarming story. Mona is an overworked single mother who is running a large animal sanctuary that is not doing well. Zackman nails Mona's seemingly unemotional side. Ross portrays Ariel, Mona's self-involved daughter, who is coming to terms with her choices. Changes in pace and pauses help display Ariel's developing control of her emotions. Paige portrays Dex, Ariel's fiancé, a loving and carefree man, by adding a bit of goofiness to his tone that seems to suit Dex to a tee. Once everyone is at the sanctuary, emotions come to the forefront, adding to the climax."

– AudioFile Magazine