One-Minute Book Reviews

June 11, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Empty Nest,’ Edited by Karen Stabiner

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Empty Nest: 31 Parents Tell the Truth About Relationships, Love, and Freedom After the Kids Fly the Coop
Edited by Karen Stabiner

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

A professor of family studies recently told the Washington Post that the idea of the empty-nest syndrome has been pretty much debunked by scholars. But the departure of children still packed an emotional wallop for many of the 31 parents who describe their experiences in the essay collection The Empty Nest, edited by Karen Stabiner. The contributors to the book include men and women, married and single parents and little-known authors and celebrities such as syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman and novelist and journalist Anna Quindlen.

Hyperion/Voice has posted a brief readers’ guide to The Empty Nest at that you may want to use at a starting point for your discussions. But like most publishers’ guides, that guide is part of a publicity campaign designed to sell books. It does not encourage criticism, cite negative reviews or suggest that you compare the novel to others on similar topics. For these reasons, the Hyperion/Voice guide may have less depth or promote a less lively conversation than you or your group would prefer. The following Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide is not intended to be comprehensive but to raise questions not covered by the Hyperion/Voice guide.

Questions for Readers

[Page numbers are based on the advance readers’ edition and may differ in the final version.]

1. Many experts have come to see the empty-nest syndrome as myth. Do you agree or disagree with them? How did the book affect your view of this issue?

2. If you agree with the experts who say that the negative effects of the empty nest were exaggerated, why do you think they were exaggerated?

3. Some researchers have found that effects of the empty nest are actually worse for fathers than for mothers. One reason is that women expect to face big changes when children leave home and start planning – and even grieving – before this happens. Men are less likely to prepare for the loss. So they are more likely to be emotionally blindsided by the departure. How do these findings jibe with your experiences and those of people you know?

4. A reviewer for the New York Times Book Review said that The Empty Nest “probably is an exercise in creative catharsis” for the contributors. What do you think the reviewer meant? Was the comment a criticism or compliment? [“Get Out. No, Wait, Come Back!” By Liesl Schillinger. The New York Times Book Review, April 8, 2007 pp. 9–10.]

5. Anna Quindlen says that the women of her generation “professionalized” mothering – for example, by sometimes “making motherhood into a surrogate work world.” At the same time, she adds, “Motherhood changed from a role into a calling.” What’s your reaction to this? Who saw motherhood as more of a “calling,” you or your mother (or grandmother)?

6. Quindlen also says that because of all the “professionalization” of mothering, “the empty nest is emptier than ever before.” Do you agree or disagree? Which generation had a harder time when children left home, yours or your parents’?

7. Marriages often break up when a nest empties, because some parents “stay together for the sake of the children.” Yet not one marriage in The Empty Next seems to have taken a major hit. Did you find this realistic or true to the experiences of women you know? Or did you get the sense that some writers were “spinning” their stories? Or that Stabiner had looked for a certain kind of person for the book?

8. Ellen Goodman writes that she used to think that mothers who had jobs outside the home “might avoid the cliché of the empty-nest syndrome.” Now that she’s in her 60s, she doubts it. What’s your view of this? How does having a job outside the home affect (or not affect) a parent’s reactions to children’s departures?

9. Ellen Levine said that she once found herself “whining” that her son didn’t call as much to talk to her. Some people might say that a lot of parents in The Empty Nest are whining. How did this affect the book? Would it have been stronger if Stabiner had included more writers who didn’t talk so much about their pain? Or were their comments appropriate?

10. One brave contributor, Jan Constantine, admitted that she was actually relieved when her daughter Elizabeth left for the University of Wisconsin. Or, as she put it: “I don’t know which of the two of us, Elizabeth or I, was more relieved to see the other one leave.” [Page 200] Why do you think more parents didn’t make similar comments? Do you think that they weren’t relieved or just felt they shouldn’t say it?

If you dare:
11. Letty Cottin Pogrebin says that one of the things she learned about the empty nest is: “You lose a kid, you gain a sex life.” True or false?

12. Nora Ephron writes briefly about her own empty nest in “Parenting in Three Stages,” an essay in I Feel Bad About My Neck (Knopf, 2006). “If you find yourself nostalgic for the ongoing, day-to-day activities required of the modern parent, there’s a solution: Get a dog,” she says. “I don’t recommend it, because dogs require tremendous commitment, but they definitely give you something to do. Plus they’re very lovable and, more important, uncritical. And they can be trained.” [Page 64] Glib as it might seems to be, this comment makes a subtle point: Sometimes what we feel when children leave home is pure nostalgia. What’s your reaction to this? How does it compare to the tone of The Empty Nest? If you’ve read I Feel Bad About My Neck, which book do you think had more value for empty-nesters?

Vital statistics
The Empty Nest: 31 Parents Tell the Truth About Relationships, Love, and Freedom After the Kids Fly the Coop. Edited by Karen Stabiner. Hyperion/Voice, 320 pp., $23.95.

A review of The Empty Nest appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on June 11, 2007, and is archived with the June posts and in the “Essays and Reviews” category.

Your book group may also want to read:

1. I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. By Nora Ephron. Knopf, 137 pp., $19.95. In this best-selling essay collection, Ephron writes about her empty nest and related topics in a short piece “Parenting in Three Stages.” I Feel Bad About My Neck was reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 14, 2006, and is archived with the October posts.

2. No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club: Diary of a 60th Year. By Virginia Ironside. Viking, 231 pp., $24.95. This comic novel focuses on Marie Sharp, a divorced 60-year-old London grandmother who becomes a grandmother for the first time and sees her stage of life differently than do most contributors to The Empty Nest. No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club was reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews on May, 2007, and is archived with the May posts:

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns. If this guide helped you, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


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