Ghosts of Harvard

Ghosts of Harvard

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In this page-turning and affecting debut from New York Times bestselling author and columnist, a Harvard freshman becomes obsessed with her schizophrenic brother’s suicide. Then she starts hearing voices…

Cadence Archer arrives on Harvard’s campus desperate to understand why her brother, Eric, a genius who developed paranoid schizophrenia took his own life there the year before. Losing Eric has left a black hole in Cady’s life, and while her decision to follow in her brother’s footsteps threatens to break her family apart, she is haunted by questions of what she might have missed. And there’s only one place to find answers.

As Cady struggles under the enormous pressure at Harvard, she investigates her brother’s final year, armed only with a blue notebook of Eric’s cryptic scribblings. She knew he had been struggling with paranoia, delusions, and illusory enemies—but what tipped him over the edge? With her suspicions mounting, Cady herself begins to hear voices, seemingly belonging to three ghosts who walked the university’s hallowed halls—or huddled in its slave quarters. Among them is a person whose name has been buried for centuries, and another whose name mankind will never forget.

Does she share Eric’s illness, or is she tapping into something else? Cady doesn’t know how or why these ghosts are contacting her, but as she is drawn deeper into their worlds, she believes they’re moving her closer to the truth about Eric, even as keeping them secret isolates her further. Will listening to these voices lead her to the one voice she craves—her brother’s—or will she follow them down a path to her own destruction?

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• Amazon Editor’s Pick for “Best of the Month”
• Goodreads “May’s Most Anticipated Novel”
• Named a “Thriller that Will Have You on the Edge of Your Seat This Summer” by PopSugar
• Named an “Addictive New Thriller” by Book Riot

Ghosts of Harvard is written with a masterly, focused hand, belying the fact that this is Serritella’s debut novel. The pages burn with frenetic energy and are peopled by memorable, compelling characters. The tension is palpable, the twists and surprises perfectly timed and the stakes as high as humans should be asked to endure. The end result, a novel you will long remember and characters you will want to see again. A triumph in every respect.”
—David Baldacci, #1 New York Times bestselling author

“Wow, what a lively, compelling, and intoxicating debut. Ghosts of Harvard is so many things—a rumination on grief, a glimpse behind the ivory walls of a famous institution, a poignant look at mental illness, and a powerful story about the ghosts that haunt us all. Francesca Serritella is my new ‘go-to’ author.”
—Harlan Coben, #1 New York Times bestselling author

“Every time I thought I knew where Ghosts of Harvard was heading, I turned out to be wrong. Part mystery, part ghost story, part psychological thriller, this novel is all entertainment.”
—Jodi Picoult, #1 New York Times bestselling author

“Edge-of-your-seat tense . . . Fans of Jodi Picoult, Kristin Hannah and Chris Bohjalian, meet your new issue-based page turner. You may need to use a few precious paper towels to mop up the tears.”
The New York Times

“A sweeping and beguiling novel . . . ventures into territory that is rarely explored these days. . . . Serritella, who is a Harvard grad herself, writes about the campus with an insider’s savvy. She takes readers on jaunts into forgotten graveyards and spooky ‘whispering wall’ corners’ . . . Ghosts of Harvard is a rich, intricately plotted thriller that gathers suspense velocity as Cady runs through the mazelike halls of academe and the winding streets of Cambridge, chasing after clues to the more sinister circumstances of Eric’s death. It’s a testament to Serritella’s sure touch that when Cady’s ghostly companions ultimately make their final departures, Harvard seems duller.”
—Maureen Corrigan, The Washington Post

“Those who like novels by Joe Hill and Pat Conroy will also enjoy this first novel. . . . The book begins as a thriller and ends as a story of personal growth and redemption. The writing is vivid and engaging, and it works for adults as well as for mature young adult readers.”
Library Journal (starred review)

“The Ghosts of Harvard presents a postmodern gothic tale wrapped in the fabric of a traditional thriller, with sterling results. A magnificent mix of the Henry James classic The Turn of the Screw with Donna Tart’s The Secret History.”
—Jon Land, The Providence Journal (starred review)

Ghosts of Harvard is a wrenchingly beautiful book. With immense heart and unwavering empathy, Francesca Serritella explores the legacy of loss and the mystery of family. It’s one of those rare novels that spirits you to a deeper understanding of your own life, one of those stories whose voice you’ll continue to hear long after you’ve turned the last page.”
—Bret Anthony Johnston, international bestselling author

“[Francesca] Serritella steps forward with a many-faceted first novel. . . . Serritella makes keen use of quantum theories about time and simultaneity in this busily plotted, emotionally astute, thoughtfully paranormal, witty, and suspenseful drama involving historical figures, academic ruthlessness, and the tragic riddles of mental illness. Serritella has also created a sensitive and searching tale about the courage and fortitude of a smart young woman in mourning and in peril. Cady is a compelling narrator.”
Booklist

“A book as generous in size as in the richly drawn characters in the dramatic, slow-burning story that leads to a stunning revelation (actually two) against a backdrop of Harvard University. This is a remarkable and assured first novel.”
—Barbara Peters, The Poisoned Pen

“There are not too many young writers with the assurance and skill to craft 469 pages of mesmerizing prose. It should be an easy hand sell.”
—Pamela Klinger-Horn, Excelsior Bay Books

“I adored this book. A GREAT READ.” —Drew Mondry, Towne Book Center

“Unexpected twists and turns make this unputdownable.” —Susan Kehoe, Browseabout Books

“I could not put this novel down and read for two days straight only taking “breaks” to sleep and eat. Absolutely outstanding and a novel that will stay with me FOREVER!!! Serritella has written a novel that I will put in the hands of every reader I see.”
—Marisa Gothie, Barnes & Noble

“It’s tight, it’s fresh, and it’s a very accomplished debut novel.”
—Carol Fitzgerald, Bookreporter.com

“I tore through this 450-page book at lightning speed. The author, Francesca Serritella, is so talented and writes a compulsively readable story. Part A Beautiful Mind and part Dead Poets Society.”
—Elizabeth Barnhill, Fabled Bookshop & Café

“A hauntingly beautiful debut novel, Ghosts of Harvard is a beautifully written story of love, loss, and mystery. A perfect book to take on vacation, and an excellent book club choice!”
—Mary O’Malley, Anderson’s Bookshop

“This one has it all – suspense, thriller, ghosts and mystery. What could be better?” —Harold Jordan, Murder by the Book

“Francesca has a written a thriller that thriller lovers and non-thriller readers like myself will absolutely love. It is accessible, relatable, and so deeply rooted in that most precious relationship of family, that it is sure to please every person who picks it up off our shelves.”
—Sarah Danforth, Towne Book Center

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Prologue

It was silly to be afraid of falling, considering her intent, but Cady hadn’t anticipated how windy it would be on the bridge. She crouched on the balustrade, her hands gripping it so tightly that white crescent moons shone in her fingernails. A gust blew her hair into her face, but she didn’t dare lift her hand to move it aside.She didn’t want to fall, she wanted to jump.

After a moment of screwing up her courage, she commanded her legs to straighten and rose slowly to a standing position. She felt a shiver down her back, although the night was warm, or as warm as Cambridge in springtime could be. Across the river, she could see Harvard’s campus, the familiar dormitories lit to perfection—but it wasn’t perfect, Cady knew that. A glance downward at the black, lapping water of the Charles triggered a jolt of fear, but not enough to deter her. She had promised herself she’d go through with it and she would.

It was easier once she was standing tall. Her jelly legs felt stronger, her balance solid. The night air swept over her body in a caress. She breathed deeply, taking in the scent of the river and this campus in all its bitterness and beauty. She had never imagined she would end up in this place, feeling this way, but here she stood with a lump in her throat, preparing to say goodbye.

Cady closed her eyes and listened to the voices egging her on; they wouldn’t let her turn back now. She wished she could slow this moment, but they were counting down—her time was almost up. She raised her chin, pulled her arms away from her sides, and wiggled her fingers in the air, reaching in the dark.

She poised, knees bent, and counted down the final seconds:

“Three, two, one—”

Chapter 1

Cady hadn’t set foot on Harvard’s campus since her older brother’s suicide. It was the place where her brother Eric had eaten his last meal, dreamed his last dream, and taken his last breath. The sight of the red brick dormitories, a picture-postcard of collegiate perfection to so many, made her heart pound. For her, it wasn’t a college, it was a haunted house.

And today she was moving in.

Cady couldn’t let her doubts show as they drove into the Harvard Yard. The sun-dappled quadrangle and its ancient elms were festooned with red balloons and a big, crimson banner reading, Welcome, HARVARD MMXXIII. She reminded herself that she’d wanted this, insisted on it, sworn that she could handle it, bet everything on it. Yet, her knee bounced in the backseat as her father parked right outside of her freshman dormitory, Weld Hall. She spied his face in the rear view mirror, his eyes weary, his jowls gray and unshaven. His sister, Cady’s Aunt Laura, sat in the front passenger seat. Cady’s mother remained home in Pennsylvania, too angry at her daughter to come today. Maybe that was for the best; seeing her mother’s face would’ve made Cady lose her nerve.

“Look at this parking spot, I told you I was good for something,” Aunt Laura said with a wink. A car accident in her twenties left her paraplegic and she used a wheelchair, hence the parking privileges, although Cady never thought of her as handicapped. Laura possessed an irrepressible, positive outlook, a trait to be tested today. She had come ostensibly to lend the use of her giant van, but Cady knew it was to fill in for her mother, and she was grateful.

Her father yanked up the emergency break and took a heavy breath. “Ready?”

Cady got out and helped Laura into her wheelchair, as her father went around to the back of the van, their solemn mood at odds with everyone around them. On the front steps of her new dorm, she noticed a boy posing for a photograph with six smiling relatives. A blond girl standing in the bed of a pickup laughed as she pushed a boxed futon toward her father, who waited on the ground wearing a Harvard t-shirt with his cowboy boots and Stetson. A tall boy in a Lakers jersey wiped his mother’s happy tears from her cheeks.

Cady envied them. They didn’t have to fake it.

She joined her father around the rear of the van and saw him hauling out her green duffel bag. “Oh, I’ll take that one,” she said, she hoped not too eagerly.

“I got it, you get the roller suitcase.”

“No, Dad, seriously.” Cady grabbed hold of the nylon straps, and he looked at her, puzzled. Then she deployed the head tilt and tone her mother had perfected. “Your back.”

He held tight for a moment, before he relented and let her have it. “Alright, but only because I haven’t been doing my exercises.”

“When did my little bro get so old?” Laura teased. “You know, some people say back pain can be psychological.”

“Then I blame you two,” he said.

Cady’s dorm room was Weld 23, only the second floor—only, she caught herself—she couldn’t help but think of the height. The elevator was crowded, so her father decided to wait, but people made room for Aunt Laura to wheel on and Cady to squeeze in after her, hugging the duffel close to her chest. Laura held a laundry hamper filled with linens on her lap.

“Nice that they have an elevator,” she said to Cady. It was her official duty to point out every good thing that day.

A middle-aged man overheard. “You know what was in this space before it was an elevator? JFK’s freshman dorm room. He went from Weld to the White House.” He slapped the back of his reed-thin son. “Might have the next president right here! Right, Max?”

His son’s face reddened, and Cady’s heart went out to him.

The elevator doors pinged open. Cady and Laura exited, and Laura broke into a grin. “God, can you imagine being here with a young JFK living down the hall? He must have been dreamy. He was probably a horn-dog even then, though.”

The first image Cady could conjure of JFK was the last moment of his life, the grainy footage of him waving from that car. She tried to imagine him as a young man her age, full of the nerves and excitement she saw on every face around her. If someone had told him he would be president, would he have blushed like that boy in the elevator, or would he have owned it? Did he sense he was bound for greatness? If someone had told him he would be assassinated, would he still have wanted that future?

“Although,” Laura continued, “if you were looking for sexy Kennedy ghosts, you should’ve gone to Brown. That’s where John-John went. He was the best looking of them all. I had such a crush on him.”

Oh right, Cady remembered, his son, too. And his brother. And his other brother sort of killed that girl—maybe that was what started it. A lot of ghosts in that cursed family. So far only one ghost in the Archers. Were they cursed, too?

They found the door to her room and Cady reached into the manila envelope to pull out her key, the metal so freshly cut that it felt sharp. She hesitated. It was real now. This place had already marked a turning point in her family’s history, and her decision to come here would be another. She knew the pain she was causing her parents. It would either be worth it, or it would be another mistake she couldn’t undo.

“You okay, honey?” Laura asked.

“Definitely.” Show no weakness, she told herself.

Cady opened the door to an empty room. It had a funny layout, the sort that comes from retrofitting a larger space to become multiple rooms; the common room was long and narrow, with an off-center window on one end and the two bedrooms off the side. She crossed to the window and looked out.

“How’s the view?” Laura asked, joining her.

“That’s Grays over there, that was Eric’s freshman dorm. I remember from when we moved him in.”

“How does that make you feel?” Laura asked, sounding like a therapist.

“Good, close to him, in a way.” Cady was surprised to hear the truth coming out of her mouth. “Is that weird?”

“No, it’s nice to remember him.” Laura put a hand on her arm. “Just keep in mind, life is for the living.”

Cady nodded. She knew it was a common saying, but it sounded so harsh to her ears now. Life was for Eric, too, even if he’d lost sight of that. Maybe they’d lost sight of him.

There was a knock at the door, and Laura went to let Cady’s father in. “Is it just you?” he asked, and for a split second, Cady didn’t know what he meant. She flashed ahead to a lifetime of not being enough for her parents. Just you?

He set the box down with a grunt. “Are you the first to arrive?”

“Yeah. We’re first.” Cady readjusted the duffel bag in her arms, still holding it close to her chest. “I know we have more to get from the van, but I want to pick my room before anyone else gets here. Do you mind if I unpack a little to claim my space? I promise I’ll be right down.” It was a lie, one of Cady’s two roommates had already requested the single room over the summer, leaving her with the double.

Laura waved her hand. “Of course, call dibs.”

“Don’t be long. We have to move the car,” her father said.

Cady watched them leave and waited a few beats to be sure. Then she darted into the larger bedroom and dumped the green duffel on a bare mattress. She unzipped it and dug under the layer of bras and panties, the final Dad-barrier, to uncover the two items she couldn’t let her family see. She’d stolen them from the box of personal effects her family had received from Harvard after Eric’s death. They’d kept the box in his bedroom at home, but Cady had secretly visited it so often, she had its contents memorized. Most was junk, he’d gotten so messy toward the end, but these two items spoke to her more than the others. As souvenirs or as protective talismans, she needed these relics close to her, especially here.

The first was sentimental: Eric’s rumpled gray Harvard hoodie. She lifted it to her face; it still smelled like him, a blend of fresh soap and warm toast. Her parents might’ve given her this if she’d asked for it, but she couldn’t risk them thinking she was emotionally fragile, they’d barely let her come here as it was. Around them, Cady had to hide that crumbly feeling whenever it threatened the corners of her mouth or crept up the front of her throat, and Eric’s scent triggered it. But sometimes she needed that feeling, liked it even, to release the pressure. She hugged the sweatshirt to her chest before pushing it to the back of the bottom drawer of one of the dressers.

The second buried item was a clue: a blue, spiral-bound notebook labeled Lab Notes at the top. Lab notes were as close as Eric would’ve ever come to keeping a journal, so it was the closest she could get to a window into his mind. Cady opened it, flipping through pages soft with wear. She ran her fingers over her brother’s familiar handwriting, the ballpoint-embossed lettering spoke to her heart like Braille. The earlier pages were vintage Eric: organized and neat, with logical headings and experimental diagrams, tidy as a textbook. As she flipped further ahead, however, the notes grew more disorganized and illegible; the math devolved into wobbly columns of numbers and slanted, incomplete equations. These scribblings didn’t look like advanced physics, they looked like nonsense. Toward the end, the written commentary appeared unrelated to the calculations: misgivings about food in the dining hall, perceived slights from “M”—Cady guessed, Matt, his old roommate—and jottings of random people’s appearance or behavior, likely those deemed suspicious. His paranoia had taken over by then. Cady hid the notebook in the same drawer as the sweatshirt. She would look more closely at it later, when she felt stronger.

With those items safely out of sight, she could relax enough to get a look at her new room. She didn’t mind having a bunkmate—sharing a room was such a normal misfortune, she found it comforting—and the double was the corner bedroom, large and sunny. She sidled around the haphazard arrangement of metal bunk beds, two desks, dressers, and bookshelves. The boxy, light wood, modular furniture looked like it had been built in the nineties; the desk bore decades of pen marks, the dresser was dinged at every corner. She could smell the fresh paint of the white walls, and Cady stuck her fingernail into a soft glob, wondering how many lives in this room had been painted over. Judging by the sloping hardwood floors, the deep windowsills, and the massive trees outside, she guessed about a century’s worth. Someone was moving into Eric’s old room in Leverett Tower right now, probably finding it as clean and white as this one; they wouldn’t know what had happened in it just last year. Cady wasn’t here to paint over anything. She was here to chip away.

The bedroom window was open, and Cady pressed her fingertips to the screen, but it didn’t give. Eric had removed the screws from his window screen in advance, the police found them and the screwdriver tucked neatly in his desk drawer, that was how they knew it wasn’t an accident. Though she supposed that no one really thought it was an accident.

Cady looked out at the busy Yard below. Every new student was acting happy, but no one was at ease. There was all the normal first-day-of-college stuff, living away from home, meeting roommates, etc., but Harvard was more than a school. It was validation. It was history. It was expectation. The place crackled with potential energy. She could see the John Harvard statue, a reminder that the college was founded in 1636, before the country itself. The legacy of the past and the onus of the future freighted the present moment, like time collapsing inward. It was saying, this is the launch pad for your extraordinary future, if only you don’t blow it. Behind the smiles and hugs and introductions, the self-doubt: am I smart enough, talented enough, driven enough to deserve my place here? Will I make good on this golden ticket, or will I crack under the pressure? They were questions for every student here, but only Cady knew the stakes—if I crack, will I survive?

Only the parents seemed unequivocally happy, basking in the proof of their parenting job well done, a sharp contrast to the pall cast over Cady’s family. She thought of her mother with a twinge; Cady missed her today, but didn’t blame her for not coming. She knew how her going to Harvard so soon after Eric’s death looked from the outside: bizarre, callous, unhealthy, morbid. And the last thing she wanted to do was hurt her parents. They had been through too much, she knew that. But she wished they could see she had her reasons.

Cady thought back to the weeks following Eric’s death, when college admissions had been the last thing on her mind. It had been impossible for her to think of her future when he no longer had one. If he was going to stay a twenty-year-old college junior forever, then it seemed like she should stay a seventeen-year-old high school senior for the rest of her life. She and her brother were three years apart, she was never supposed to catch up to him. But when the letter of acceptance arrived, it was like the decision had been made for her. To go anywhere but Harvard was to willfully not know, to stick her head in the sand. She had done plenty of that when Eric was alive, and she regretted it dearly. She had learned that unasked questions were more dangerous than unanswered ones.

Cady had tried keeping the why? questions locked away, but most of the time, not thinking about Eric was like pushing a beach ball underwater. She had trained herself to run through a series of questions with very specific and unchanging answers—a pilot’s checklist against emotional nosedive. Why did Eric change? Because he was schizophrenic. Why did Eric choose to die? It wasn’t a choice, it was his mental illness. Was it because she, his only sibling, had let him down? It was nobody’s fault.

But did she believe that?

Every single day she woke with the same questions, and every night she struggled to fall asleep in the misery of not knowing. If any answers existed, they would be here, at Harvard.

It would be cowardly not to go, and she had been a coward long enough. She owed it to Eric. It was the least she could do.

She didn’t want to be here. She needed to.

Cady looked again at Eric’s freshman dorm across the green. He had been happy that first year, so excited and hopeful, Cady recalled helping him move in three years ago with fondness. She tried to recall his exact room, her eyes traced the building’s facade to find it—there, the fourth floor on the corner, his bedroom faced the Yard. Now the window was dark, save for the places where the panes of glass reflected the bright green, yellow, and orange elm leaves, dancing back and forth in the wind. A gust blew, and the colors swept aside to reveal a figure behind the glass.

Cady felt a shiver down her spine.

She had thought she’d seen his red hair, but it was only a reflection from another tree.

Cady stood there looking, wanting it to happen again.

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A printable PDF with a letter from Francesca, discussion questions, recipe, playlist, further reading, map of Harvard, and more.

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A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR

Dear Reader,

Thank you for choosing Ghosts of Harvard for your book club. I know the pressure I feel when it’s my turn to pick a book for my book club, and I’m honored you chose mine.

Book clubs have long held a special place in my heart. For the last fifteen years, my mother and I have hosted an annual party at our home for book club readers. What started out as twenty people in our living room, for whom I baked chocolate chip cookies, has now grown to 1,000 book club readers split over two days who join us for a catered lunch and massive big-tent book club meeting. (Yes, it’s still at our home, and of course, completely free of charge. Because in my family, when we want to thank someone, we invite them over and feed them carbohydrates.)

I can honestly say it is my favorite event of every year, because it is always a pleasure to meet such smart, compassionate, engaging people. Please visit my website, FrancescaSerritella.com, for details on how to qualify for this year’s party. I’d love to see you there.

Please enjoy these supplementary materials—some of which contain spoilers—as you create your own unique reading experience among your friends. I hope these discussion questions lead to insights into the book and into your own lives. I wish I could join your conversation, but the book doesn’t belong to me anymore, it’s yours. Thank you again for letting the voices in my head join your book club.

Sincerely,
Francesca Serritella

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. College is often called “the happiest time” in a person’s life, but it can also be a stressful period of transition and pressure. In what ways are the anxieties Cady has going into college unique, and in what ways are they typical? What kinds of pressures are on young people today? Which were unique to you or your generation? Did anything about Serritella’s description of life at Harvard surprise you? Would you want to attend Harvard or send your child there?

2. In the book, Cady is haunted by Harvard’s past inhabitants, literally and figuratively, and burdened by the expectations of the future. Is there any time or place in your life where you felt the weight of history? What about a time in your life where you felt the pressure of high expectations? Did you feel motivated to rise to the occasion, or paralyzed by fear of failure?

3. Potential is a theme in this novel: the potential of genius, the pressure to live up to that potential, the potential of a predisposition to mental illness, the potential thwarted by slavery, discrimination, and war. In our culture, we love prodigies, wunderkind, and rising stars. Why is potential so fascinating and prized in our culture? Is it over-valued? Psychologists say it is generally easier to imagine positive outcomes rather than negative ones. Is that true for you?

4. At the outset of the novel, Cady’s identity has been shaken by the illness and loss of her brother, her hero. Her role in her family has also changed; once in the background, she is now the focus of her parents’ attention and concern. Do you think people get assigned roles in their family? Did that happen to you or your children? How do the stories families tell, and the stories we tell ourselves, shape our identity and expectations? Have you ever had to challenge those personal narratives or family myths?

5. Cady believes the voices she’s hearing are ghosts. On the other hand, she’s a lonely girl under acute emotional distress from a family with a history of mental illness. Do you think the ghosts are real, or is Cady suffering from auditory hallucinations? Why do you think so?

6. Cady likens the nature of the ghosts to visiting her childhood home years later, where “she could hear Eric’s little-boy voice echoing around the stairwell. Her family’s past selves were captured between those walls, preserved in memory, like an insect in amber.” Later, Cady co-opts a theoretical physics concept about hidden dimensions in which space-time “folds over” to explain it. Do you believe in ghosts, or have you ever had a paranormal experience? If so, what is your “theory” of ghosts, what they’re like, and how they reach us? Do you agree with Whit that “ghosts don’t haunt the living. We haunt them?”

7. Cady regrets her role in what she believes was the turning point in Eric’s life that set him on a course of self-destruction. Although in reality, his life story wasn’t as simple a narrative as she thought. In what ways are the three ghosts at turning points in their own lives and at turning points in American history? How are they examples of potential thwarted? In retrospect, what was a turning point in your life?

8. Cady is haunted by those what-if scenarios: what if she could have said or done something different with her brother, could his death have been prevented? She carries those alternate realities in her mind and tortures herself with what could have been. She longs to rewrite history, and the ghosts initially seem to offer that chance—but it can never be done. Do you have any what-if parallel universes in your mind? Life with an ex-partner, a different career, a different life choice? Have you ever compared yourself or your choices to a hypothetical alternative? Is that fair to do?

9. As the novel states, “history is never as simple a narrative as we write in books.” With controversies over Confederate monuments, Christopher Columbus, and the slave-holding history of lauded figures and institutions, we’re in a cultural moment where we’re challenging long-held histories. Is this upheaval necessary? Why is it painful to let go of idealized versions of historical figures or places? Did learning that Harvard’s leadership once participated in slavery change your perspective on the school? Which is more powerful, fact or fiction? Is a comforting lie ever preferable to a brutal truth?

10. Cady is haunted by why Eric killed himself. She goes to Harvard looking for answers, while suffering under the secret belief that it was her fault. By the end of the book, we learn other characters have traced their own lines of responsibility in Eric’s death. Can one simple narrative be accurate? What do you think were contributing factors to Eric’s suicide? Could his death have been prevented? Have you ever made a decision where you were confident of your assessment, only to later learn you didn’t have all the relevant information?

11. Sadly, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people aged 10-24. Why do you think young people today might be at greater risk of suicide than in past decades? Are colleges doing enough to provide adequate mental health services to students? Do the privacy laws excluding parents from the medical care of their children, legally adults, help or hurt students’ wellbeing?

12. Is grieving a suicide more difficult than other types of loss? If so, why? How can we better support those who have lost someone to suicide and dispel the unfair stigma?

13. The phrase Cady hears at the Sever entrance whispering wall, “It takes only an error to father a sin,” is a genuine quote from the real Robert Oppenheimer. What do you think it means? Can you see how it applies to Oppenheimer’s life, both in the novel and in history? Do you think it applies to Cady’s story? What about your own? Are we responsible for all the unintended consequences of our actions?

14. Robert tells Cady, “I labor under my awful fact of excellence as if I am bound for extraordinary things. But even if, in the end, I’ve got to satisfy myself with testing toothpaste in a lab, I don’t want to know till it has happened.” This snippet of dialogue is a quote from a genuine letter Robert Oppenheimer wrote during his Harvard days. Do you agree with him? If you could know your future, would you want to?

15. At the end of the novel, Cady thinks to herself, “Now she understood that we must love people whom we cannot control, in fact we are lucky to love and be loved by people we cannot control. If we could control the person, love wouldn’t be a gift.” What do you think of this observation? Do you think you can control or influence your loved ones? Have you ever been frustrated by a loved one making a choice you didn’t agree with? Do you ever put pressure on yourself and your behavior, as if your actions could influence someone else’s? Does love ever mean letting go of control?

16. People often say “Hindsight is 20/20,” but is this true? In the novel, Robert argues that our feelings about the end result color our perception of the past, so it’s “poor scientific method.” And in listening to the minister’s sermon at the end, Cady reflects on the “inherent incompleteness of any single perspective.” What do you think? Should we be more compassionate with ourselves, even, or especially, in hindsight?

RECIPE: ROBERT’S BLACK AND TAN

“Don’t talk to me about health with whatever you’ve got there. What do you call that, a poor-man’s pain au chocolat?”

“What? It’s just toast—” Cady stopped, suddenly at a loss for words. She was looking down at her plate bewildered to find a piece of toast with peanut butter and a squiggle of chocolate syrup. She was seeing it for the first time.

***

Pardon me, but you’re eating my black and tan.


Ingredients

• Sliced bread
• Peanut butter
• Chocolate syrup

Instructions:

You don’t have to be a genius to make Robert’s favorite dining hall treat. To make your own, toast a piece of bread, then spread peanut butter on top (crunchy or creamy—your choice). Top it off with a squiggle of chocolate syrup.

Eat a slice on your own as you read, or cut each piece of toast into strips for a salty and sweet snack for the whole book club.

PLAYLIST

Jam to the novel’s soundtrack during your book club meeting! This Spotify playlist features the songs in the book—from Ranjoo’s pregame music and Cady’s choir songs to Whit’s jazz standards—plus others that inspired Francesca Serritella during the writing process. Here’s a sampling below:

“Truth Hurts” by Lizzo
“Happy Days Are Here Again” by Ben Selvin & His Orchestra
“Stormy Weather” by Ethel Waters
“Abendlied” by Cambridge Singers
“Paranoid Android” by Radiohead
“Betty Co-Ed” by Rudy Vallee
“Mood Indigo” by Duke Ellington
“Oxford Comma” by Vampire Weekend
“All of Me” by Louis Armstrong

Listen to the full playlist on Spotify.

FURTHER READING ON HARVARD HISTORY AND THE CHARACTERS

Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions by Lisa Randall

Knocking on Heaven’s Door by Lisa Randall

Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections, edited by Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

The Airships Akron & Macon: Flying Aircraft Carriers of the United States Navy by Richard K. Smith

Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities by Craig Steven Wilder

To access the booklet by Sven Beckert, Katherine Stevens, and the students of the Harvard and Slavery Research Seminar and other helpful resources, visit www.HarvardandSlavery.com.

EAT LIKE A HARVARD STUDENT

Clover

Admire the collegiate tiles from 1912 while you eat the fast food of the future.

Daedalus

A perfect bar, but if you’re not with Nikos, they do check ID.

Henrietta’s Table

Enjoy fine dining, as long as your parents pay.

Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage

A Harvard institution with a side of fries.

Tealuxe

Unfortunately, Tealuxe closed at the end of 2018. This book exists in the parallel universe where Tealuxe never closes, apologies to this dimension.

Felipe’s Mexican Taqueria

Fuel your all-nighter with a burrito the size of your head.

Darwin’s

The best sandwich shop in Cambridge, and if you don’t like the crew going, DoorDash delivers.

Berryline

Forget your roommate troubles and get fro-yo like Andrea.

The Kong

Food comes hot, with or without a final club punch to deliver it.

Mike’s Pastry

Biting into that crunchy cannoli shell is worth looking like a powdered-sugar ghost.

Grafton Street

A beautiful restaurant to stall going back to your dorm.

Insomnia Cookies

Find a drop, reward yourself with a cookie.

L.A. Burdick Chocolate Shop

Get a cup of the richest hot chocolate you’ve ever had to warm your walk to the Observatory.

Pinocchio’s Pizza, AKA “Noch’s”

A slice of Sicilian pizza is Harvard’s unofficial brain food.

Map of Harvard

MAP OF HARVARD SQUARE

1. Memorial Church
2. Weld Hall
3. Old Burying Ground historic cemetery
4. Newell Boat House
5. Lowell House
6. Widener Library
7. Lamont Library
8. Sever Hall (whispering wall)
9. Soldiers Field
10. Week’s Footbridge
11. The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
12. The Science Center
13. Wadsworth House

RESOURCES

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24/7: 1-800-273-8255
Online chat available at: suicidepreventionlifeline.org
The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

Know the Risk Factors
Risk factors are characteristics that make it more likely that someone will consider, attempt, or die by suicide. They can’t cause or predict a suicide attempt, but they’re important to be aware of.

• Mental disorders, particularly mood disorders, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and certain personality disorders
• Alcohol and other substance use disorders
• Hopelessness
• Impulsive and/or aggressive tendencies
• History of trauma or abuse
• Major physical illnesses
• Previous suicide attempt(s)
• Family history of suicide
• Job or financial loss
• Loss of relationship(s)
• Easy access to lethal means
• Local clusters of suicide
• Lack of social support and sense of isolation
• Stigma associated with asking for help
• Lack of healthcare, especially mental health and substance abuse treatment
• Cultural and religious beliefs, such as the belief that suicide is a noble resolution of a personal dilemma
• Exposure to others who have died by suicide (in real life or via the media and Internet)

Know the Warning Signs
Some warning signs may help you determine if a loved one is at risk for suicide, especially if the behavior is new, has increased, or seems related to a painful event, loss, or change. If you or someone you know exhibits any of these, seek help by calling the Lifeline.

• Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
• Looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online or buying a gun
• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
• Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
• Talking about being a burden to others
• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
• Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
• Sleeping too little or too much
• Withdrawing or isolating themselves
• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
• Extreme mood swings

Source: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

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