From the author of the acclaimed novel We Are Called to Rise comes a “jewel of a novel” (BookPage) about four vivid and complicated women in Las Vegas whose lives become connected by secrets, courage, tragedies, and small acts of kindness.
Fun-loving and rebellious, twenty-one-year-old June Stein abandons the safe world of her New Jersey childhood for edgy 1950s Las Vegas. For the next 60 years, June will dare to live boldly. She will upend conventions, risk her heart and her life, rear a child, lose a child, love more than one man, and stand up for more than one woman.
June’s story will intertwine with those of three unlikely strangers: a one-time mail order bride from the Philippines, a high school music teacher, and a young mother from Mexico working as a hotel maid. Knit together around June’s explosive secret, they forge a future that none of them foresee.
This jubilant, compassionate novel explores the unexpected ways that life connects us, changes us, and even perfects us. A powerful story of lust and of hope, of redemption and of compassion, In the Midnight Room is a smart, sagacious novel about womanhood, family bonds, and how we live in America now.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
To celebrate victory in Europe, June Stein dove headfirst off the Haverstraw Bridge.
A few months earlier, she had bought an eighteen-inch silver cigarette holder on a day trip to the city—snuck into the shop while her mother was choosing a hat next door—and spent the spring flicking ashes on the track as she smoked behind the stairs of the boy’s gym. In April she wore stockings to school, and bent over the water fountain to highlight the brown seams running along the backs of her legs. Leon Kronenberg said he had touched her breast. When Mr. Sawyer came back from the summer holidays with a goatee, June Stein breathed in, licked her lips, and shuddered.
She was bad for the neighborhood.
Things happened to other girls because of June Stein.
When she married Walter Kohn at nineteen, most people figured she was pregnant. June Stein would get her due. She’d be stuck in Clinton Hill for life; Walter Kohn was going to be bald in three years, like his father and his uncle Mort.
But at twenty, June Stein disappeared.
She was gone for six months.
When she came back, Walter Kohn had become something of a catch. People thought it was wrong that his wife had left him. They said she’d gone to Reno, gotten a divorce, that she’d never been pregnant, she had just wanted to have sex, and now that she’d had it, now that she’d used Walter Kohn—who did have beautiful blond hair and the bluest eyes—she’d gone and left him, and who knows what man she might try to take up with next.
June Stein returned a pariah.
It was a role she had cherished, but at twenty-one, she found it less amusing.
She had not gone to Reno.
She had gone to Las Vegas, and the lights and the shows and the desert air, the dust and the heat and the way one felt alone in the universe, were more appealing in memory than they had been when she lived them. There had been only a handful of Jews in town, and none she found interesting, so while she was waiting for the divorce, she hung around a different crowd: locals mostly, born and raised Nevadans, and some that had come in for the gambling boon. And they rose in stature after she moved back to her parents’ house, after even her friends expressed sympathy for Walter Kohn—who had taken the newspaper into the bathroom with him each morning—and there was the way her mother looked at her in the evenings, and the way her father kept asking if she would like to take a stenography course. One day June Stein packed a suitcase, including the eighteen-inch silver cigarette holder, called a taxi, and flew all night from Newark to Las Vegas.
She didn’t even leave a note.
But that was June Stein.
Prettiest girl in Clinton Hill.
And the only one who ever dove headfirst off the Haverstraw Bridge.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for In the Midnight Room includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Laura McBride. 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.
What is it about the Midnight Club?
Spanning the six decades during which Las Vegas grows from a dusty whistle-stop into a melting-pot metropolis, In the Midnight Room tells the story of four women whose lives intertwine after each one experiences a transformative moment in the El Capitan nightclub in Las Vegas.
The one who falls in love. June hires a charismatic black singer to anchor her club, but her fast-paced lifestyle runs aground as racial tensions mount.
The one who gets lucky. Honorata leaves the Philippines to become a mail-order bride, then strikes it rich in the Midnight Room.
The one whose heart is broken. Engracia finds bad luck in the Midnight Room, and becomes enmeshed in Honorata’s secrets when she confronts a man with a gun.
The one who keeps hoping. Coral struggles with her mysterious past until an attempt to help Engracia steers her to the Midnight Room.
Even in their darkest hours, these women make courageous choices that transform those they love, those they don’t know, and most profoundly each other.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Describe the El Capitan. What does June love about it? How and why is it significant to the other characters in this novel? Does the nightclub change over time?
2. Why do you think McBride introduces the principal characters as falling in love, and getting lucky, and so on? How do those descriptions affect your reading of their stories?
3. When June Stein first appears, the narrator says, “She was bad for the neighborhood. Things happened to other girls because of June Stein.” What were your initial impressions of June? Did you like her? Were you surprised by the way her story ends?
4. At the end of June’s section, Del examines the choices he made. What were they? Were they bad?
5. When Honorata arrived in the United States, she thought, “The Honorata who had lived in Manila did not exist anymore.” How has she changed?
6. Augusta tells Coral: “‘Life is long. There’s a lot of ways for a secret to come out.’” What secret has Augusta been keeping? Do you agree with her decision to do so?
7. When Coral tells Ada she’s afraid to share news of her pregnancy, Ada instructs her to “‘give up that . . . Coral thing. That everything-has-to-be-right, my-life-isn’t-messy thing.’” Do you think Coral is a perfectionist, needing to control everything around her? How have her experiences shaped her? Why is she afraid to tell Koji about her pregnancy?
8. Nanay tells Honorata that Malaya is “‘an American,’” who “‘should do American things.’” What does she mean? Do you think Malaya and Honorata are alike despite coming of age in different cultures?
9. In the aftermath of June’s pregnancy, she believes that “Del was not the one who had made the mistake. It was not Del who had risked Marshall’s world.” Do you agree? What mistakes have been made? How does Del handle this situation?
10. Do you think Del’s actions are justified? What effect do they have on both Del and June?
11. Coral sees her relationship with Gerald as “a private shame.” Do you think any of the romantic relationships in this novel are healthy?
12. Cora believes that, ultimately, marrying Del “was going to be the best decision June ever made.” Do you agree? Is June’s marriage to Del beneficial to her? Did you find any aspects of their relationship surprising?
13. Moving to Las Vegas was “not the hardest thing [Engracia] had done. It was easy to do hard things for her son.” What other sacrifices, if any, does Engracia make for him? Do you think she’s a good mother? Do any of the other characters make sacrifices for their children? Were there any that you found particularly moving?
14. Once Coral was older, “she sometimes imagined Odell Dibb differently than Augusta had described him.” What did you think of Odell? Did you like him?
15. Eddie, speaking to June about their relationship, says, “‘For you, it’s fun. For me, it’s the end.’” Is the friendship dangerous for each of them? Do they also support each other?
16. In chapter 26, the narration switches from third person to first, with June telling her own story. What is the effect of the change in narration? Why do you think McBride does it?
17. Why does Coral choose to share the story of her upbringing with Malaya? Does it help Malaya? What effect does sharing the story have on Coral?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. When Augusta asked Coral to host the family Christmas celebration, telling Coral that hosting was becoming too much for her, “Coral knew that this wasn’t true. Moving Christmas to her house was Augusta’s way of anointing Coral’s home.” Why is it important that Augusta anoint Coral’s home? Who hosts major holiday meals in your family?
2. Read We Are Called to Rise with your book club and compare it to In the Midnight Room. Has the author’s writing style changed since the release of her first novel?
3. Las Vegas has occupied a special place in American mythology. To June “Las Vegas was the future.” For Honorata, it is the first place in the United States she has been treated with kindness and where she can make a home. Have you visited Las Vegas? If so, what are your impressions of it? And, if not, how do you imagine it?
4. To learn more about Laura McBride and read more about her other book, visit her website, http://lauramcbrideauthor.com/
A Conversation with Laura McBride
Your first novel, We Are Called to Rise, was a critical success. Booklist proclaimed you “without question . . . a truly commanding literary presence.” Did you feel added pressure while writing your second novel? If so, how did you handle it?
There were times when I wondered if I would have the persistence to write another novel, and days when I worried that I had charged into the story without giving it enough consideration in advance. Looking back, I see those were confidence fears. In fact, I’m dogged when I want something, and I had considered many possible stories, some at length, before feeling electrified about this one.
When the novel clicked together in my head—that I would use these characters, that the plot would develop in this particular way—I was just racing to get it on paper. I couldn’t write fast enough or get enough writing time to lay it down while it was all in my mind. That was the pressure that never left me through the whole writing period: this thrum of anxiety that I might not have enough time to write it out, or to go back and make of it what I wanted.
We Are Called to Rise has been a book club favorite since it was published, and you often speak to book clubs. What have you found most rewarding about that?
I love the stories readers share with me—of their children, their losses, their hopes. It’s quite moving, the way that talking about a book can catapult people into these honest and personal revelations. It’s a privilege. Also, book group folk are nice. I am showered with compliments, which is not at all good for one, but feels wonderful. And many book groups serve dessert.
Can you tell us about your writing process? When you started writing this novel, did you know how all of the characters’ stories would fit together?
I had a short period to get the book going, and then I had to write it in all these weird moments and places: on planes, in hotel rooms, between classes. And it drove me crazy not to be able to concentrate for long periods of time in a quiet place. But in the end, it still got written. Which feels unbelievable to me. I half expect to wake up and find I never did finish that novel.
In general, though, I like to have a strong conception of the story before I begin. I want to know the first page and the last page, and I want to know some of the ways that it is going to get from the one to the other. Writing something as long as a novel is a process of discovery—characters and circumstances grow—but I choose to twist those curling vines around a strong branch. So while I had a plan and a conception for the whole story, I also followed the book where it led. I let the characters evolve, I let the plot change course. That’s the fun of it, really.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? Is there anything that you wish you had been told at the start of your writing career?
I wish that I had not abandoned writing when I was younger and waited until I was fifty to take it up again. I quit because I didn’t see a path to publication. I thought about what I was doing as “writing a book,” and if I couldn’t get that book produced and into the world, I didn’t see the value in doing it. So I stopped writing and turned outward. I started teaching, I did a lot of volunteer work, I focused on my community.
When I’m in the thick of a story, when I’m writing feverishly and surely and intuitively, I am a pure form of myself. I’m both conscious and unconscious of what I’m doing, like a basketball player in the zone. Perhaps we aren’t blank slates when we are born, perhaps we inherit certain kinds of knowledge—as salmon born in a particular river do—and given the chance to be the people we are born to be, we should take it. I turned my back on the person my seven-year-old self knew I was, and I wish I hadn’t.
I hope I haven’t given the wrong impression. I don’t mean that my writing is inspired or even good; I mean that it’s part of me, that it’s natural to me, that I knew I could do it as soon as I was introduced to words on the page. I have always made sense of the world through story.
So, my advice. Write if you love it. Write if it’s your natural gift. Write if it makes you feel as if you are in a conversation with the ages. But don’t write for publication. Don’t write for anyone else at all. These things are out of your control, and they poison the well.
Your descriptions of Las Vegas are so vivid that it becomes another character in the book. Did you base any of the descriptions of the city and its inhabitants on people or things that you encountered in your daily life? Did you conduct any research to create the historical scenes?
Well, I call my research a novelist’s research, which means that I read idly and listen in on conversations that are not my own and ask people random questions about the details of things they have casually mentioned. I think my friends are on to me—they suspiciously say, “Is this going in a novel?”
I’ve lived in Las Vegas for three decades, and in a city that has changed as much as this one has in that time, that’s a lot of acquired but not necessarily verifiable information. So I often write from what I think I know, and later I try to verify that my memories are correct (they aren’t always), and I try not to let this whole question of perfect accuracy get in my head. I want my novels to be grounded in truth, but they aren’t textbooks; and, as a fiction writer, I am seeking the subjective, not objective view.
Joanna Rakoff praised this book, saying “I’m not one to pull out the term ‘Great American Novel,’ but Laura McBride’s sublime book demands nothing less." Were you inspired by any “Great American Novels” when you were writing? Can you tell us about them?
I think that anything I could say in response to such a glorious comment would just be piling on. But I love that you asked me a question that included it. I wish everyone would ask me a question that included Joanna’s comment. If I get to meet her in person, I’m going to give her a crushing hug.
Your second book spans many generations and many points of view. Was it difficult to switch between time periods and characters’ viewpoints as you were writing? Did you write the characters’ sections consecutively?
I wrote the story in the order one reads it, and the structure of this novel allowed me to generally be in one character’s head at a time.
I did spend a lot of time trying to immerse myself in the particular area of the Philippines where Honorata grew up, and in the area of Mexico Engracia is from. I wrote pages and pages based on these explorations, and then deleted nearly all of them. That writing was self-conscious in its effort to prove I knew what I was writing about. It interrupted the story; those painstakingly acquired details were things the characters would neither notice nor report. So I would have four or five pages that took me a week to put together, and I would keep one tiny detail about the sound of a particular frog, and be back to the story in my head.
I finally just had to laugh about it. Working that hard freed me. Knowing that information, even if I didn’t include it, gave me the confidence to keep imagining. It’s really scary to write about the other—and a novelist has no choice but to do so. The essence of fiction, to my way of thinking, is the empathetic journey that writer and reader take. But making that imaginative leap into an other requires an assertion of the self that I, and perhaps many women, have learned to quell. The decision to write about people whose lives are different from mine was daunting. I could only begin by accepting that I might fail.
What would you like your readers to take away from this book?
I hope it’s a pleasure to read. I hope they care about the characters and immerse themselves in an imagined world. That’s what I was doing. I was caught by the idea of these four women: one rich, one poor, two American-born, two immigrants, four mothers. (Actually, I wanted Coral not to have children; I didn’t want four mothers, but the life that she happened to live without children took me down a different path and away from this story, so I rewrote it.)
I wanted to write about the intensity and intimacy of women’s lives; I wanted to capture some of those voices I hear when I walk in the park, talk with people in my college, or work on a community project. I’m interested in experiences that are different from mine, in people who see the world differently and who believe things that counter my own beliefs. In the world of possible questions, I like why.
Is there anything that you have found particularly gratifying?
On my end, I could hardly breathe for wondering what my editor would think. It was inexpressibly thrilling to have her first response be, “Thank you very much for writing a new novel, and thank you extremely much for writing this one.”
I didn’t know that I would be even more thrilled the second time, or that I would have an even clearer sense of how lucky I am to have this creative opportunity. All through writing this book, I told myself that lightning doesn’t strike twice, that the act of writing was the point, and that I must not count on anyone wanting to read it. I think that was a legitimate way to think about what I was doing, and yet, lightning did strike twice.
Are you working on anything now? Can you tell us about it?
I hope so! I’m answering this question eight months before my second book comes out, and at this point, I’m not much past daydreaming. I spent the summer plotting out a new book, but I think I’ve dropped that idea. For me, preparing to write happens on two levels: I have to choose the story and I have to make a plan for when I will write the book. It’s hard to predict how long the first takes—I’m letting my mind spin and trusting that the characters and the situation will emerge—but I have a plan for the second. I’ll be ready to go when the story hits!