Women of the Sparrow family have unusual gifts. Elinor can detect falsehood. Her daughter, Jenny, can see people’s dreams when they sleep. Granddaughter Stella has a mental window on the future—a future that she might not want to see.
In The Probable Future this vivid and intriguing cast of characters confronts a haunting past—and a very current murder—against the evocative backdrop of small-town New England. By turns chilling and enchanting, The Probable Future chronicles the Sparrows’s legacy as young Stella struggles to cope with her disturbing clairvoyance. Her potential to ruin or redeem becomes unbearable when one of her premonitions puts her father in jail, wrongly accused of homicide. Yet this ordeal also leads Stella to the grandmother she was forbidden to meet and to a historic family home full of talismans from her ancestors.
Poignant, arresting, unsettling, The Probable Future showcases the lavish literary gifts that have made Alice Hoffman one of America’s most treasured writers.
Praise for The Probable Future
“A thrilling adventure of literary alchemy . . . A magical, mystical tour de force of pure entertainment.”—The Seattle Times
“Delicious . . . Hoffman is an unapologetic optimist, and optimism is in short supply these days. It feels like a vacation to curl up with [The Probable Future].”—The New York Times Book Review
“Instantly alluring . . . A mysterious, modern-day fairy tale . . . Hoffman is an amazingly talented writer with a beautiful sense of sentence construction, an intriguing imagination, and the ability to create compelling, complex characters that readers care about.”—Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“Hoffman’s ethereal tale of a family of women with supernatural gifts is a magical escape, grounded in the complex relationships between mothers and daughters.”—Marie Claire
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About the Author
Date of Birth:March 16, 1952
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:B.A., Adelphi University, 1973; M.A., Stanford University, 1974
Read an Excerpt
I. Anyone born and bred in Massachusetts learns early on to recognize the end of winter. Babies in their cribs point to the brightening of the sky before they can crawl. Level-headed men weep at the first call of the warblers. Upstanding women strip off their clothes and dive into inlets and ponds before the ice has fully melted, unconcerned if their fingers and toes turn blue. Spring fever affects young and old alike; it spares no one and makes no distinctions, striking when happiness is least expected, when joy is only a memory, when the skies are still cloudy and snow is still piled onto the cold, hard ground.
Who could blame the citizens of Massachusetts for rejoicing when spring is so close at hand? Winter in New England is merciless and cruel, a season that instills a particular melancholy in its residents and a hopelessness that is all but impossible to shake. In the small towns surrounding Boston, the leaden skies and snowy vistas cause a temporary color blindness, a condition that can be cured only by the appearance of the first green shoots of spring. It isn't unusual for whole populations of certain towns to find they have tears in their eyes all through the month of March, and there are those who insist they can see clearly for the very first time.
Still, there are some who are slower to discern the signs of spring. They distrust March and declare it to be the most perilous time of the year. These are the stubborn individuals who continue to wear woolen coats on the finest of days, who insist it is impossible to tell the difference between a carpet of snowdrops and a stretch of ice in this slippery season, even with twenty-twenty vision. Such people cannot be convinced that lions will ever be turned into lambs. In their opinion, anyone born in March is sure to possess curious traits that mirror the fickle season, hot one minute, cold the next. Unreliable is March's middle name, no one could deny that. Its children are said to be just as unpredictable.
In some cases, this is assuredly true. For as long as their history has been known, there have been only girl children born to the Sparrow family and every one of these daughters has kept the family name and celebrated her birthday in March. Even those babies whose due dates were declared to be safely set within the snowy margins of February or the pale reaches of April managed to be born in March. No matter when an infant was due to arrive, as soon as the first snowdrops bloomed in New England, a Sparrow baby would begin to stir. Once leaves began to bud, once the Blue Star crocus unfolded, the womb could no longer contain one of these children, not when spring fever was so very near.
And yet Sparrow babies were as varied as the days of March. Some were calm and wide-eyed, born with open hands, always the sign of a generous nature, while others arrived squalling and agitated, so full of outrage they were quickly bundled into blue blankets, to ward off nervous ailments and apoplexy. There were babies in the Sparrow family who had been born while big, soft snowflakes fell and Boston Harbor froze solid, and those whose births took place on the mildest of days, so that they drew their first breaths while the robins built nests out of straw and twigs and the red maples blushed with a first blooming.
But whether the season had been fair or foul, in all this time there had been only one baby to be born feet first, the mark of a healer, and that child was Stella Sparrow Avery. For thirteen generations, each one of the Sparrow girls had come into this world with inky hair and dark, moody eyes, but Stella was pale, her ashy hair and hazel eyes inherited, the labor nurses supposed, from her handsome father's side of the family. Hers was a difficult birth, life-threatening for both mother and child. Every attempt to turn the baby had failed, and soon enough the doctors had begun to dread the outcome of the day. The mother, Jenny Avery, an independent, matter-of-fact woman, who had run away from home at seventeen and was as unsentimental as she was self-reliant, found herself screaming for her mother. That she should cry for her mother, who had been so distant and cold, whom she hadn't even spoken to in more than a decade, astounded Jenny even more than the rigors of birth. It was a wonder her mother wasn't able to hear her, for although Elinor Sparrow was nearly fifty miles from Boston, Jenny's cries were piercing, desperate enough to reach even the most remote and hard-hearted. Women on the ward who had just begun their labor stuck their fingers in their ears and practiced their breathing techniques, praying for an easier time. Orderlies wished they were home in bed, with the covers drawn up. Patients in the cardiac unit felt their hearts race, and down in the cafeteria the lemon puddings curdled and had to be thrown away.
At last the child arrived, after seventeen hours of brutal labor. The obstetrician in charge snapped one tiny shoulder to ease the birth, for the mother's pulse was rapidly dropping. It was at this very moment, when the baby's head slipped free and Jenny Avery thought she might lose consciousness, that the cloudy sky cleared to reveal the silvery splash of the Milky Way, the heart of the universe. Jenny blinked in the sudden light which poured in through the window. She saw how beautiful the world was, as though for the very first time. The bowl of stars, the black night, the life of her child, all came together in a single band of light.
Jenny hadn't particularly wanted a baby; she hadn't yearned for one the way some women did, hadn't gazed longingly at rocking horses and cribs. Her stormy relationship with her own mother had made her wary of family ties, and her marriage to Will Avery, surely one of the most irresponsible men in New England, hadn't seemed the proper setting in which to raise a child. And yet it had happened: this baby had arrived on a starry night in March, the month of the Sparrows, season of snow and of spring, of lions and lambs, of endings and beginnings, green month, white month, month of heartache, month of extreme good luck.
The infant's first cries weren't heard until she was tucked into a flannel bunting; then little yelps echoed from her tiny mouth, as though she were a cat caught in a puddle. The baby was easily soothed, just a pat or two on the back from the doctor, but it was too late: her cries had gone right through Jenny, a hook piercing through blood and bones. Jenny Sparrow Avery was no longer aware of her husband, or the nurses with whom he was flirting. She didn't care about the blood on the floor or the trembling in her legs or even the Milky Way above them in the sky. Her eyes were filled with dizzying circles of light, little pinpricks that glimmered inside her eyelids. It wasn't starlight, but something else entirely. Something she couldn't comprehend until the doctor handed her the child, the damaged left shoulder taped up with white adhesive as though it were a broken wing. Jenny gazed into her child's calm face. In that instant she experienced complete devotion. Then and there, on the fifth floor of Brigham and Women's Hospital, she understood what it meant to be blinded by love.
The labor nurses soon crowded around, cooing and praising the baby. Although they had seen hundreds of births, this child was indeed exceptional. It wasn't her pale hair or luminous complexion which distinguished her, but her sweet temperament. Good as gold, the nurses murmured approvingly, quiet as ashes. Even the most jaded had to agree this child was special. Perhaps her character was a result of her birth date, for Jenny's daughter had arrived on the twentieth of March, the equinox, when day and night are of equal length. Indeed, in one tiny, exhausted body, there seemed to exist all of March's traits, the evens and the odds, the dark and the light, a child who would always be as comfortable with lions as she was with lambs.
Jenny named the baby Stella, with Will's approval, of course. For despite the many problems in the marriage, on this one point they agreed: this child was their radiant and wondrous star. There was nothing Jenny would not do for their daughter. She, who had not spoken to her own mother for years, who had not so much as mailed a postcard back home after she'd run off with Will, now felt powerless to resist the mighty forces of her own maternal instinct. She was bewitched by this tiny creature; the rest of the world fell away with a shudder, leaving only their Stella. Jenny's child would not spend a single night apart from her. Even in the hospital she kept Stella by her side rather than let her be brought to the nursery. Jenny Sparrow Avery knew exactly what could happen if you weren't there to watch over your child. She was quite aware of how wrong things could go between mothers and daughters.
Not everyone was doomed to repeat history, however. Family flaws and old sorrows needn't rule their lives, or so Jenny told herself every night as she checked on her sleeping daughter. What was the past, after all, but a leaden shackle one had a duty to try and escape? It was possible to break chains, regardless of how old or how rusted, of that Jenny was certain. It was possible to forge an entirely new life. But chains made out of blood and memory were a thousand times more difficult to sever than those made of steel, and the past could overtake a person if she wasn't careful. A woman had to be vigilant or before she knew it she'd find herself making the same mistakes her own mother had made, with the same resentments set to boil.
Jenny was not about to let herself relax or take the slightest bit of good fortune for granted. There wasn't a day when she wasn't on guard. Let other mothers chat on the phone and hire baby-sitters; let them sit on blankets in the Boston Common on sunny days and on blustery afternoons make angels in the snow. Jenny didn't have time for such nonsense. She had only thirteen years in which to prevail over her family's legacy, and she planned to do exactly that, no matter the cost to herself.
In no time she became the sort of mother who made certain no drafts came in through the windows, who saw to it that there were no late-night bedtimes or playing in the park on rainy days, a sure cause of bronchitis and pleurisy. Cats were not allowed in the house, too much dander; dogs were avoided, due to distemper, not to mention allergies and fleas. It did not matter if Jenny took a job she despised at the bank on Charles Street or if her social life was nonexistent. Friends might fall away, acquintances might come to avoid her, her days of reviewing mortgage applications might bore her silly, but Jenny hardly cared about such distractions. Her only interest was Stella. She spent Saturdays chopping up broccoli and kale for nourishing soups; she sat up nights with Stella's earaches, stomachaches, bouts of chicken pox and flu. She laced boots and went over lessons, and she never once complained. Disappointments, fair-weather friends, math homework, illnesses of every variety were dealt with and put in their proper place. And if Stella grew up to be a wary, rather dour girl, well, wasn't that preferable to running wild the way Jenny had? Wasn't it better to be safe than sorry? Selfish pleasures dissolved the way dreams did, Jenny knew that for certain, leaving behind nothing more than an imprint on the pillowcase, a hole in your heart, a list of regrets so long you could wrap them around yourself like a quilt, one formed from a complicated pattern, Love knot or Dove in the window or Crow's-foot.
Soon enough, Jenny's marriage to Will Avery fell apart, unwound by mistrust and dishonesty, one thread and one betrayal at a time. For quite a while there had been nothing holding these two together but a shared history, the mere fact that they'd grown up together and had been childhood sweethearts. If anything, they stayed together longer than they might have merely for the sake of their daughter, their Stella, their star. But children can tell when love has been lost, they know when silence means peace and when it's a sign of despair. Jenny tried not to think what her mother might say if she knew how badly their marriage had ended. How self-righteous Elinor Sparrow would be if she ever found out that Will, for whom Jenny had given up so much, now lived in his own apartment on the far end of Marlborough Street, where at last he was free to do as he pleased, not that he hadn't done so all along.
That Will was unfaithful should have been evident: whenever he lied, white spots appeared on his fingernails, and each time he was with another woman, he developed what Jenny's mother had called "liar's cough," a constant hacking, a reminder that he'd swallowed the truth whole. Every time Will came back to Jenny, he swore he was a changed man, but he had remained the same person he'd been at the age of sixteen, when Jenny had first spied him from her bedroom window, out on the lawn. The boy who had always looked for trouble didn't have to search for it after a while: it found him no matter where he was, day or night. It followed him home and slipped under the door and lay down beside him. All the same, Will Avery had never presented himself as anything other than the unreliable individual that he was. He'd never claimed to have a conscience. Never claimed anything at all. It was Jenny who had insisted she couldn't live without him. Jenny who forgave him, who was desperate for one of his dreams, one that would remind her of the reason she fell in love with him in the first place.
Indeed, if Elinor Sparrow found out they had broken up, she certainly would not have been surprised. She had correctly judged Will Avery to be a liar the moment she met him. She knew him for what he was at first sight. That was her talent, after all. One sentence and she knew. One shrug of the shoulders. One false excuse. She had marched Will Avery right out of the house when she found him lurking in the parlor, and she'd never let him return, not even when Jenny begged her to reconsider. She refused to change her opinion. Elinor was still referring to him as The Liar on the brilliant afternoon when Jenny left home. It was the spring of Jenny's senior year of high school, that feverish season when rash decisions were easily made. By the time Jenny Sparrow's classmates had been to the prom and were getting ready for graduation, Jenny was working in Bailey's Ice Cream Parlor in Cambridge, supporting Will while he managed to ruin his academic career with hardly any effort. Effort, on the other hand, was all Jenny seemed to possess. She washed dishes after a full day of work; she toted laundry to the Wash and Dri on Saturdays. At eighteen, she was a high school dropout and the perfect wife, exhausted, too busy for anything like regret. After a while her life in her hometown of Unity seemed like a dream: the common across from the meetinghouse where the war memorials stood, the linden trees, the smell of the laurel, so spicy just before blooming, the way everything turned green, all at once, as though winter itself was a dream, a fleeting nightmare made up of ice and heartlessness and sorrow.
Reading Group Guide
1. Each of the Sparrow women has a secret view into the lives of others—Stella sees their deaths, Elinor their falsehoods, and Jenny their dreams. In which ways do these attributes make the women more perceptive to those around them? How does this paranormal ability insulate and isolate them? Who adjusts the best to using her gift to accomplish something good, and how does she do so?
2. In which ways does Jenny’s extreme overprotectiveness of her daughter cause a rift in their relationship? Do you think the two will be closer as time wears on? Why is Stella so much tougher on her mother than on her father? How is Will affected by Stella’s unadulterated devotion to him?
3. Why does Stella ally herself with Will? In which ways is he a devoted father, and how is he lacking as a parental role model? What characteristics does Will share with Jimmy?
4. How do you account for the estrangement between Elinor and Jenny? How does the stubbornness of each woman expand the breach between them? How does Stella act as a bridge between her warring mother and grandmother?
5. The three generations of Sparrow women all are drawn to men with problems, both hidden and visible. Is this always true in love? Is every relationship fraught with problems, hidden or otherwise? Can you think of other works of fiction in which everyone is in love with the “wrong” person or where the “wrong” person turns out to in fact be “right”?
6. How does love transform characters in the novel? Which evolution was the most surprising to you?
7. The season of spring is a tangible presence in the novel. How is it a harbinger of change, and how does it pose a turning point for Stella in particular? How is it a symbol of renewal in the book, but also of death?
8. What about Elinor is so compelling to Brock Stewart? How does she feel about him? Why does Brock feel that he has let Elinor down? Would you classify their relationship as romantic, friendship, or something in the middle? Why?
9. What message does the book convey about history? There seems to be an official and an unofficial history. Matt is interested in the “unofficial history”—the history of the women in town and their effects on the fabric of their society. What part of history is written with “invisible ink”? Which groups are most forgotten in the official history of our country? Why is it important to note that all of the monuments on the town green of Unity honor men and those who have fought in wars?
10. “For the first time, she didn’t want anyone’s opinion but her own,” Stella thinks when she doesn’t ask for her best friend’s opinion about Jimmy. How is this a significant moment in the development of Stella’s independence? In what ways does Stella rely on Juliet, both for guidance and support? In friendships, as in love, do opposites often attract? Why do you think this is so?
11. How does Liza evolve from a “plain girl” into the woman Will falls in love with? In which ways does she act as a mother figure to Stella? What ultimately draws Will to her, and how does her advice and guidance change him? How does Liza’s past loss—her own history—affect the person she ultimately becomes?
12. In which ways are Matt and Will similar? How are they different? How does each react to being his “brother’s keeper”— both figuratively and literally? How does their affiliation with the Sparrows shape them, for better or for worse? Do you think both of them love Jenny? Why or why not? Who do you think is the right man for Jenny? Do you believe there is one true love for each of us or that circumstances dictate whom a person loves?
13. Throughout the history of the town, the Sparrow women have changed the lives of others—often unnoticed. What changes did you as a reader see?
14. Why does Elinor leave Cake House to her daughter Jenny, instead of to someone else? Is the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter often less fraught than that between mother and daughter? Was this true for you? Do you think that Jenny has made peace with her childhood home by the end of the novel? More important, has she made peace with her mother?
15. Why is building a memorial to Rebecca Sparrow so important to Stella? What does Rebecca symbolize to the town of Unity at the opening of the book? Has that conception changed by the conclusion of the novel? How does Stella’s acceptance of her family history contribute to that shift, both in the minds of her family and to the outside world? What is the place of the witch in history? What does it signify for women about their own place in society?
16. Juliet often mentions that each person has a “best feature.” In your view, what are the best features of the main characters? Are they always aware of what their best feature is, or do they often long to be other than they are?
17. Is there a sense of magic in The Probable Future? Do the gifts of the Sparrow women seem magical? Is a “gift” often a “curse”? Does what brings you the most pleasure often bring the most pain as well? What do you believe is the greatest gift a person can have? What is the connection between love and magic?