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Cover for The Art of Floating

The Art of Floating

Kristin Bair O'Keeffe


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At a time when nothing seems real,
it takes something truly unusual to put your life into focus.

When her beloved husband Jackson disappeared without a trace, popular novelist Sia Dane stopped writing, closed down her house, stuffed her heart into a cage, and started floating. It wasn’t the normal response to heartache, but Sia rarely did things the normal way.

Exactly one year, one month, and six days after Jackson’s disappearance, Sia discovers a mysterious man on the beach. He’s mute, unresponsive, and looks as if he has just walked out of the sea. It’s the sort of situation Jackson would have solved with a simple call to the police. But Jackson is gone.
As unreal as he seems, Sia is determined to help this man. Perhaps she can return him to his place in the world—to whoever lost him and loves him. Perhaps she can answer their questions the way no one could answer hers.
But as her friends and family help her winnow her way to the truth, Sia comes to realize that the unfathomable leap between sorrow and healing begins with a single step.

Praise For The Art of Floating

“Blending radiant language and a dreamlike journey through sorrow and healing, this is one to recommend to fans of Sarah Addison Allen and Eowyn Ivey.”—Booklist
“…the core plot of The Art of Floating is touching and delivers quite an emotional punch.”—RT Book Reviews
“With a touch as light as air, Bair O’Keeffe delivers a powerful punch. The Art of Floating is an emotional, sensitive novel about what causes pain and what defines loss, where “what really happened” floats somewhere between the realms of the real and the impossible. Sweet as a summer breeze, aching as a frozen sea, this story drifts through quirky wordplay, the small town drama of coastal New England, and the lure of detachment from one’s own mind, without losing its tether. One man is lost, one man is found—how on earth, or underwater, or in the air, did this come to be?”—Lydia Netzer, bestselling author of Shine, Shine, Shine
"A triumph. A treasure. Tender, profound, and hilariously heartbreaking.  A gorgeously magical story that will have you saying  "my favorite!" and then sharing it with everyone you know."—Hank Phillippi Ryan (Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, and Mary Higgins Clark award winning author)

Berkley, 9780425271483, 464pp.

Publication Date: April 1, 2014

About the Author

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe is the author of the novels The Art of Floating and Thirsty, as well as numerous essays about China, bears, and off-the-plot expats. She lives in Andover, Massachusetts, with her husband and daughter and travels to anywhere as often as she can.

Conversation Starters from

To make good use of this reader’s guide, you will need the following:

  • a whiteboard with markers OR a large piece of paper with markers

    snacks (cookies, chips, grapes, watermelon slices, chocolate cake, etc.)

  • a sense of humor

  • a sense of wondera computer with Skype, if you’d like to invite author Kristin Bair O’Keeffe to join you (She’d love to!)

  • a Twitter accountwine (optional; recommended)

Spoiler alert: This reading guide assumes you have read The Art of Floating from cover to cover. If you haven’t, stop reading now! The following questions may contain spoilers.


When Sia decides to take Toad home with her after discovering him on the beach, do you cheer her on, or bury your head in your hands and cry out, “Don’t do it!”? Why? What would you have done in her place?

It seems that Sia lives in one heck of a quirky town in which advice is dispensed from a church sign, piping plovers divide the population, and you’re never quite sure what is real or imagined. But is it really all that different from any town anywhere in the world? Aren’t there quirky aspects of any place if you dig deep enough? What’s quirky about your town?

M is a wildly passionate mother. How is she like or unlike mothers you know? What do you like about her? Does anything bug you?

Play a word association game. Have one person in your group call out the following words while each person in the group writes down the first thing that pops into her head. Afterward, compare lists. How do your words differ? How are they similar? What does it all mean?

  1. Gumper

  2. the Dogcatcher

  3. jump rope

  4. Mrs. Windwill

  5. piping plover

  6. Hannah Willow

  7. spaceship

  8. motherhood

  9. Jackson

  10. lost

  11. Odyssia Dane

Watch Buddhist roshi Joan Halifax’s TED talk “Compassion and the True Meaning of Empathy”. Then consider Sia’s deep reservoir of empathy. What role does empathy play in your culture/family/community? What value do you place on it?

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe stretches the traditional structural rules of storytelling in this book. Some chapters are just one line long; one chapter contains nothing more than the definition of the word fledge. Which storytelling aspects of The Art of Floating do you most enjoy?

Sia’s heartache over Jackson’s disappearance is so great that it often seems she’ll never recover. She gets a lot of feedback and advice from folks around town. What advice would you give her?

You get to hang out with either Sia or Jilly for the day. Which would you choose? Why?

The lines between reality and the imagined (or perceived) are often blurred in this novel: floating/not floating, fish/not fish, alien/not alien, lost/found, etc. Does this mimic “real life” or are things in “real life” more cut and dry?

When people around the world find out about Toad, they become territorial and go a little crazy. Dr. Dillard is determined to put Toad in a psych ward. What does the world’s response to Toad say about our culture today?

Take a look at the epigraph, which is taken from Homer’s The Odyssey, and consider the various other references to The Odyssey throughout the book (Odyssia’s name, M’s obsession with the book, Sia’s journey home, etc.). What is reflected in these references? What is Sia’s relationship to Odysseus?

While there’s a lot of humor around the battle between the “plover lovers” and their opponents, there’s also an essential question about the choices humans have to make about protecting the environment. How far should we go to save wildlife? Does Sia’s town take it too far by closing beaches for the plover?

With which character do you most associate—Sia, Jackson, Jilly, Toad, the Dogcatcher, M, or Richard? Why?

Jilly and Richard: will they make it?

What made you laugh in The Art of Floating? What broke your heart?

Many things lost and found throughout this story: Toad, Hiroshi Aomori, Sia’s pen, M’s virginity, Jackson, innocence, Sia’s ability to write, the object in the Dogcatcher’s house, etc. Make a list of all the things you’ve lost and found throughout your life, big and small. Then study it. Talk about it. Compare it to lists others make. Hash it out. Make a bit of sense of it.

Movie time: who do you see playing Sia? Jackson? Toad? Jilly? M?

Got a question for Kristin Bair O’Keeffe? Send it to her via Twitter. She’s out there in Twitterland waiting to hear from you (@kbairokeeffe)