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Still Life With Tornado Summary & Study Guide Description
Still Life With Tornado Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:
The following version of this book was used to create this study guide: King, A.S. Still Life with Tornado. Dutton Books, 2016.
The dual epigraphs of this novel set up two important issues that the narrative will explore and reveal throughout the text: "The farther you enter the truth, the deeper it is," by Bankei Yōtaku and "Everything you can imagine is real," by Pablo Picasso. These epigraphs declare before the protagonist, Sarah, ever utters a word that the novel will explore these two important themes: truth and reality. These epigraphs should also serve to alert the reader that in this novel, the idea of reality will be flexible. Indeed, throughout the novel, the reader will encounter events from the past that are revised and revealed to be nothing but the imaginings of ten-year-old Sarah, while at the same time events in the present of the novel which seem surreal and almost delusional will be confirmed as real occurrences observed by others in Sarah's life. However, the flexible nature of reality and truth in this novel might be confusing at first to readers.
Still Life with Tornado is told in short chapters (often no longer than one to two pages), each labeled with some title or phrase that reflects the contents of the action in the section. The main narrative is told first-person present-tense by a 16-year-old referred to only as Sarah. The story takes place in May of her sophomore year of high school. However, interspersed through the novel are other interruptions, including chapters narrated by Sarah's mother, Helen, where Helen speaks directly to the reader using the second-person address of "you," as well as chapters told in past-tense by Sarah as she recalls the events of an ill-fated trip to a resort in Mexico her family took when she was ten. These flashback chapters are interspersed fairly evenly throughout the novel, but the first of these flashbacks to Mexico is about the last day of their vacation, when something happened that Sarah has forced herself to forget. As the novel progresses, she is visited by her ten-year-old self (often referred to as Ten), and is forced to remember what actually happened between her father and brother, Bruce. As the 16 year old Sarah remembers and comes to terms with the abusive nature of her family, the events of the first flashback are revised and the vacation in its entirety is recalled and remembered.
The novel opens with the line, "Nothing ever really happens" (1).This single line will be repeated throughout the narrative as Sarah searches for the answers to her existential crisis and confronts new people, experiences, and memories. The idea of newness and originality will be a driving force behind her discontent and her quest to understand the crisis she has found herself in. At the beginning of the novel, Sarah is in art class. She has been asked by Miss Smith, the art teacher, to sketch a still life. Miss Smith told the class at some point that "there is no such thing as an original idea," and Sarah thinks of this as she stares at the pear she is supposed to draw (1). Sarah finds, however, that she cannot draw anything. She wants to be the paper, a white expanse of blankness. She tells Miss Smith that she has lost the will to participate, and she eventually stops going to school. This interaction with Miss Smith establishes Sarah as a somewhat overly dramatic art student, whose fixation on originality seems, ironically enough, unoriginal. However, because we see that Sarah is incapable, rather than unwilling, to draw the still life, and the reader also sees Miss Smith's dismissal of Sarah's distress, we begin to understand that something else might be going on.
Following her decision to not attend school, Sarah begins to wander around the city during the day, looking for something original. At the bus shelter, however, she runs into her 23-year-old self, who follows her onto the bus and to city hall, where present-day Sarah is considering changing her name to Umbrella. Although her parents argue about whether to force her to go back to school, Sarah refuses and goes around the city instead. She finds an abandoned school in a decrepit part of town and decides to spend the day in that school instead, imagining that the decaying rooms are filled with her classmates and teachers. As she imagines the scenarios of re-entering the life of her school, the reader is given a glimpse into the tension she is avoiding by not going back to her own school. The next day, it is 10-year-old Sarah who greets the protagonist at the bus stop, and they ride around town together as the younger version of herself asks Sarah if she remembers Mexico. They go into the art museum together and the novel flashes back to Mexico at age ten. The reader does not realize it yet, but the scene that is narrated in past-tense here is the last day of the family's trip to Mexico some six years before. The reader will also not realize that some of the details described in the scene, especially Sarah seeing and making friends with the tropical fish, are nothing but a figment of the 10-year-old Sarah's imagination. They are narrated, however, as though they are real.
In the art museum, 10-year-old Sarah follows her present-day counterpart through the museum, where they see a Roy Lichtenstein painting called Sleeping Girl that is worth more than 45 million dollars. The expense of the painting makes Sarah reconsider what art is and why she is trying to be an artist. Later, Sarah lies to her parents about where she has been all day and realizes that she lies all the time.
Sarah's next adventure is to follow a homeless artist, Earl, who lives in a doorway down the street. Following him around town helps Sarah to not think about what happened with the art club at school, and even that she still refuses to acknowledge or narrate directly about. When she returns home, there is tension in the household as both parents avoid dealing with the fact that Sarah is not going to school. We learn that Sarah has deleted her social media account on a Facebook-like website called "The Social" (57) and she has no other connection to her high school world.
The following Sunday, Helen is off from work, but she spends the day sipping vodka and cranberries and not dealing with Sarah's truancy. Instead, Sarah returns to following Earl through the city, making up stories about him the same way that she made up the fish in Mexico. This revelation shows the reader that the original narrative of the Mexico story might not be as reliable as they originally suspected. Sarah returns home early with her 10-year old self to find her parents fighting and calling each other names, but Chet does not recognize her 10-year-old self at all. Later that day, Chet berates Sarah about not going to school. He vacuums the living room but leaves a sliver of tissue and dust on the TV, which Sarah uses as a medium for drawing. What seems like strange and maybe unfocused cleaning the reader will later understand is a test, an attempt to get Helen to argue with him about the housework so that he can lash out against her and fight with her.
On the following Monday, Sarah once again follows Earl through the city, and as she walks and watches him she tells about the headpiece she had made for the art show. She reveals that someone stole the headpiece before it could be judged, and she sees it as the rest of the class putting her in her place. 10-year-old Sarah returns and tries to get Sarah to remember more about their past, but Sarah only remembers seeing a young child being hit by her mother in a restaurant bathroom. Sarah continues to follow Earl, until a well-dressed young man that Earl has lunch with tells her to stop following his father. She believes that not talking to Earl when she has the chance to is, perhaps, the first original thing she has done.
Six days pass with no major developments as Sarah wanders around the city and contemplates art. She does not shower or clean herself, and she wonders if she is going crazy. She expands her wandering to nighttime walks, knowing that her father would be angry if he knew she was leaving the house at midnight. She begins eating food out of trashcans despite having money in her pocket. As her strange behavior escalates, it underscores just how desperate she is to have someone pay attention to her plight and just how withdrawn her parents have become. Eventually, she decides to call her brother Bruce, who cries when he realizes who is on the phone.
The next day, Sarah introduces her mother to her 10-year-old self, whom Helen can see. Helen takes 10-year-old Sarah to a movie, leaving present-day Sarah to call Bruce, who decides to come for a visit. Sarah and her mother have 10-year-old Sarah over for dinner, but her father still does not recognize the younger version of his own daughter.
As Bruce travels east, to visit, Helen takes Sarah shopping. Helen tries to lie to cover for Chet, but Sarah confronts her mother and tells her that she remembers what happened in Mexico. The two go to a fortune teller, but neither talks to the other about what the palm reader tells them. When they return home, Sarah finally realizes that everything her father does that seems lazy or blank is actually bait, intended to get her mother to react to him so they can fight.
Bruce finally arrives, and the two siblings talk. But since their conversation is difficult, they pretend to be leaving voicemails for one another. Bruce reveals that their father was physically abusive for most of his childhood, including breaking multiple bones, and Sarah realizes that she has been acting, playing a part for her entire life. Bruce, who works with troubled kids, tries to explain the realities of being the victim of abuse and how difficult it is to both come to terms with the abuse and leave it, but the whole conversation upsets Sarah. She believes that everything she knew about her life has been an elaborate lie.
The next day, Sarah goes on a walk with her mother, who officially introduces Sarah to Earl, the homeless man. Earl had been a patient that Helen had saved in the ER. Earl also knows that Bruce is in town and forces Sarah to admit the fact to her mother. Sarah gets Bruce to come and visit, even though Bruce knows it is possible that Chet will literally kill him for coming. When Bruce arrives, it takes less than two minutes for Chet to realize Bruce is in the house and to start destroying things. Bruce remains calm and guides his mother and sister outside, where he calls the police. Inside, Chet continues to destroy the kitchen and living room, and when the police arrive, he tries to lie to them about Bruce molesting Sarah. Bruce's presence and support allows Helen to remain strong enough to allow the police to take Chet away and to start divorce proceedings.
When Chet returns to the house for his things, he has to face the multiplicity of Sarahs. He still does not understand who they are or what is happening, but after he leaves, they begin to disappear, leaving only present-day Sarah. Freed from the burden of the secrets she did not understand. Sarah feels able to use her painful past to move on and grow. At the end, Bruce, Sarah, and Helen return to the art museum. Trying to find one of her favorite exhibits, Sarah finds a gallery being prepared for a new display instead. She finds the blank white walls the most moving art she has ever seen, and understands if she lays down her own armor she could move into her future with a newfound lightness.
As the present-tense narrative of Sarah's day-to-day life is progressing, the novel often cuts away to the past-tense memories of what happened in Mexico. Six years before, the family took an ill-fated vacation to a cheap Mexican resort, where the water was mucky with seaweed and the other vacationers were rude and showed little class. During the vacation, Chet's usual fuse was precipitated by his irritation with Bruce and the drinking he was doing. Bruce and Sarah spent most of their time together, apart from their parents, and Bruce told Sarah that Helen and Chet were getting a divorce. When Sarah asked her mother if this was true, Helen told Chet what Bruce had said, causing an even larger argument between them. Bruce, angry at his mother's betrayal and his family in general, stole his parents' wedding rings out of the room safe and threw them into the ocean. When Chet found out, he punched Bruce hard enough to knock out a molar. After the family returned home, Bruce left, never to speak to his parents until Sarah's breakdown brings him back to Philadelphia.
In addition to the past-tense flashbacks to Mexico, the present-tense narrative is also interrupted by very short chapters narrated by Helen using the second-person address of "you" to speak directly to the reader. These short chapters reveal the history of her abuse and her own understanding of the situation she had both made and found herself stuck in. The Helen chapters often re-tell portions of Sarah's narrative, which serve to underscore exactly how much Sarah is able to intuit even though she does not yet know the truth. These chapters also serve to humanize Helen, so the reader can see her as a strong, capable woman who nonetheless does not leave her abuser. In doing so, the Helen chapters highlight the complex emotions at play in abusive situations.
This section contains 2,337 words
(approx. 6 pages at 400 words per page)