Outside the Ordinary World
by Dori Ostermiller

Published: 2010-07-27
Paperback : 400 pages
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Sylvia Sandon is at a crossroads in her life. A wife and mother of two daughters, she and her city-planner husband grapple with the escalating renovation of their antique farmhouse--a situation that mirrors the disarray in Sylvia's life. Facing a failing marriage and a famished career ...
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Sylvia Sandon is at a crossroads in her life. A wife and mother of two daughters, she and her city-planner husband grapple with the escalating renovation of their antique farmhouse--a situation that mirrors the disarray in Sylvia's life. Facing a failing marriage and a famished career as an art teacher, Sylvia finds herself suddenly powerless to the allure of Tai Rosen, the father of her most difficult art student. As their passion ignites, Sylvia is forced to examine her past, and the seeds of betrayal that were sown decades earlier by her mother's secret life.
Eloquently written and deeply thought-provoking, Ostermiller's OUTSIDE THE ORDINARY WORLD crosses many years and miles--from the California brushfires in the 1970s to New England during the first half of this decade. Raised Seventh Day Adventist, Sylvia must reconcile the conflicting values exhibited by her parents--a mother involved in an extramarital affair and a father who was emotionally distant and abusive--while coming to terms with her own disturbing role in her family's dissolution and father's tragic death.
While infidelity is a subject often explored in fiction, Ostermiller shines a razor-sharp lens on the gray areas surrounding betrayal, the complex interplay of religion, and the powerful legacy passed down from one generation to the next. At the same time, she reveals the redemptive power of the human spirit to love, transform, and forgive despite family history.
--Grace McQuade,  Goldberg McDuffie  (added by author)

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i’m pacing circles in the family therapist’s
waiting room, trying to discern what my daughter is saying
on the other side of that door. Hannah hasn’t spoken to me
in days, but she seems to have plenty to say to a stranger: I
can hear the muff led inf lection of her voice, rising and
falling with some thick emotion, her footsteps beating the
length of the wood f loor. I time my own gait to match
hers—step for step across the narrow, windowless room.
Though I’ve never been taught to believe in purgatory, it must
be a place like this, where we hold our breath while the stories
converge. A land where we linger, mourning our nature like
obstinate children whose parents warned them about the
crack in the sidewalk, the f issure in the glass, the lethal fork
in the trail.
The night my father died, a Santa Ana wind sent tumbleweeds
as big as these waiting-room chairs across our yard.
Lying on my bedroom f loor, I heard the dry clapping of palm
fronds, people’s trash barrels bumping down the street. Around midnight, the electricity sputtered out. They say we
often know the exact moment of a loved one’s passing: I
remember sirens, and in the blackness felt my body expand
as though it would fill the house. The weight of my guilt
pressed down like water—massive, immovable.
I got up then, stood on tiptoe to reach the secret boxes in
the upper corner of my closet and brought them, bulging
with contraband, into the night. It was almost impossible to
light the f ire pit in that swirling wind, but I kept at it, lighting
match after match, holding each illicit letter f irm until it
caught, curled and blackened in the f lame, until the boxes
were f inally empty and bits of ash scattered and danced across
our patio. Then I hopped the fence, joined with the wind. I
walked until an orange dawn bled over the San Gabriel
Mountains, until I could no longer feel my feet, until my
mother finally drove up beside me and told me to get in.
Until two days ago, I hadn’t spoken to anyone of that
Thirty years and three thousand miles from that history, I
can’t believe it’s come to this—pacing past the stacks of
Parenting and Family Circle while my thirteen-year-old, on the
other side of that door, makes her case against me. Don’t we
all assume we’ll do it differently, not repeat the past? We
believe with all our hearts that we can rise above the things
they couldn’t. Sometimes, our beliefs blind us.
... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

From the Publisher:

1) As a child, Sylvia describes her mother as “perfect,” the kind of mother who took them to the fabric stores on Tuesdays, “wallpapered the insides of her silverware drawers,” put her husband through school, and kept her family together. Yet she’s also harboring a destructive secret. Discuss whether Elaine is a “good mother,” using evidence from the book. What is the possible relationship between Elaine’s “goodness” and her secret life?

2) Sylvia’s father is an ambitious man who drinks too much and is prone to violence. Yet he can also be tender, fun and insightful. To what extent do you think Don’s behavior is an expression of his character, and to what extent exacerbated by his feeling rejected? Might this character have transformed, if Elaine had fully embraced him, or was the marriage “doomed from the start?”

3) The Seventh-day Adventist church, with its pervasive imagery of the second coming, plays a role in this story and in Sylvia’s consciousness as a child. In what ways do you think faith informs this story? How does Sylvia’s relationship to faith change throughout the course of the book?

4) When Sylvia meets Tai, she feels as if a door has opened and she “has not walked, but fallen through.” Throughout her affair, she continues to experience this sensation of being drawn by a force larger than gravity… Do you think Sylvia “needed” to repeat her mother’s experience? Why or why not? What unresolved issues from Sylvie’s marriage contributed to her having this affair, and which from her past?

5) California during the 70’s figures large in Sylvia’s childhood, captured in details like the Watergate hearings, California brush fires, Patty Hearst, Helen Reddy, Santa Ana winds, the Joy of Sex... How important do you think setting details are in the story? What might the author have been trying to convey by setting the story in this time and place?

6) Houses also play an integral role in the story. Elaine and Don’s marriage unravels in their new house. Sylvia and Nathan’s union is overwhelmed by the renovation of an antique farmhouse, which was the scene of another family’s dissolution, years before. And Orchard Hill, Sylvie’s grandparents’ house, is a kind of outdated Eden, “safe from the transience and bustle of ordinary time.” The final image in the book is of Sylvie and Nathan’s house, blazing with the light of their recent argument. Discuss the symbolism of houses in this story.

7) Mr. Robert is the archetypal visitor—the intruder whose appearance disrupts the stream of ordinary life. He offers laughter and love, promises to fulfill everyone’s dreams. Yet his presence, unwitting or not, triggers catastrophe. Is Mr. Robert savior, or captor?
8) Tai is a landscape architect who builds labyrinths. Although Sylvia is powerfully drawn to the labyrinth in his backyard, she never actually walks it. Why do you think the author made this choice?

9) After Sylvie and Tai make love for the last time, she experiences a series of “letting go” moments: in the therapist’s office with Hannah, at her grandmother’s funeral, when she visits her father’s grave, and finally, on the lakeshore looking for Emmy, when she believes she has lost everything. At what point do you as a reader really believe she has surrendered to the life she has? At what point do you experience any hope for Sylvia’s and Nathan’s marriage?

10) What does the title, Outside the Ordinary World, mean to you? How do you think it relates to each of the main characters?

11) Throughout the story, Sylvie struggles toward and against the intimate bond she shares with her mother. In what ways has this intimacy helped or harmed Sylvia? In what ways has it influenced her own mothering? How has this mother/daughter relationship transformed by the end of this story?

12) The legacy of abuse and betrayal is often passed down from one generation to the next. Knowing this, what chances do you think Hannah and Emmie have of breaking the cycle in their own adult relationships?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Note from the Author:

What compels us to repeat the past?

This is the question haunting Sylvia Sandon, the narrator of my new novel, Outside the Ordinary World—a literary page-turner that crosses many years and miles—from California brushfires in the 70’s to New England during the first half of this decade.

Against the backdrop of fundamentalist Christian mores, 12-year old Sylvie agreed to hold a secret that would devour her family’s dream of happiness. Thirty years later—a wife, teacher and mother of two daughters—she finds herself following her mother’s prodigal path, into an affair she feels powerless to resist…

Author Diane Chamberlain said this: “Outside the Ordinary World is both moving and thought-provoking--a perfect bookclub book! Ostermiller skillfully weaves past and present into one complex and haunting tapestry…”

I love chiming in on book group discussions! Please visit my website, www.doriostermiller.com, where you can contact me to arrange a time. On the site, you’ll also find a reader’s guide, an author interview and my blog, covering a range of topics, from labyrinths to parenting, to the trials and joys of the writing life.


Dori Ostermiller

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