Here are the students’ literature circle materials for this week’s book club meeting on Thea Lim’s novel An Ocean of Minutes (pp. 198-249). The first round is available here, the second round here, the third round here, and the fourth round here.
Summarizer: Lauren Sternenberg
The section opens with Norberto and Polly prepping for their wedding. She tries on many of Marta—Norberto’s previous girlfriend—and they pose for pictures to solidify the lie. Overall, Polly does her best to fabricate a magic between them for the photos, but it falls flat.
Next, there’s a slight montage of Polly becoming used to travelling to Norberto’s and work, in general, just settling in. She gets to know him a bit better, finding out his family is from El Paso, then moved to Albuquerque where he was separated from his family. Norberto joins the corps to try and find them, but it failed, and he moved to Alabama to drive for the Great South Bus Lines. After, he met Marta and they walked to San Antonio to get the house he’s in now. He’s proud of his hand-made house and record collection, where the one that was Marta’s favorite is turned around.
Norberto suggests they walk on the beach to get used to each other. They hold hands, where Polly feels trapped, until she find’s he was waiting to let go after 120 seconds. He says they should recreate a special moment, which they’ll do the day after. He has her stand in the surf until she dreams of home and her mother.
They get on the boat and get the details of their marriage story right, where Polly is given Marta’s mother’s ring. She realizes it seems like she’s betrayed Frank in marrying Norberto, but she can’t turn back.
The next day, they go to get married. They’re both stricken because this isn’t how they imagined getting married, and when they have the choice to kiss each other, they don’t. On the boat ride home, she tries to get Norberto to see the beauty that Marta saw in the coast, but he misses it.
In April of 1980, Polly is struck by Frank’s collection of items, and she asks him about what he’d do with all their mementos if she were to leave him. He says he’ll throw them away. The evening is heavy between them afterwards, and they agree to take a weekend trip to help. Sadly, the trip has been planned to the minute by Frank, and Polly feels suffocated. They argue about going on the bus tour, then she tells him they have all the time in the world, and he has nothing to be afraid of. He receives it badly and seems defeated.
His reaction reminds her of when Polly’s mother died and she went to the woods instead of school, and how when Donna caught her, she cried until Donna asked what was wrong, and she was afraid of being the only person to remember her mother. Her memories would keep her mother safe. She wanted to tell Frank that, but she can’t.
They go on the bus and sit in silence, where them taking a picture for his grandpa lightens the mood. It tanks a minute later because of the tourists all around them, and she attacks Frank for being so calm. He walks back to his car, defeated, which prompts Polly to buy plastic cherry blossoms for him. She apologizes. He keeps those flowers in the car.
Now, in regular time, Polly realizes Norberto hasn’t come home. She goes looking for him back at Moody Plaza, where he calls her a moron in front of other O-1’s. He smells like alcohol. When they return home, she yells at him about being secretive, where he brings up that they’re not really married. Polly rips his magazines in response.
Norberto tells her the fixer he hired took all his money and photos, and he’s desperate for any leverage. He starts to advance on her, but she refuses. When he doesn’t stop, she smashes him in the head with a lamp and runs off into the rain.
Polly runs back to the women of 4A1, where she’s taken in again by Cookie, who’s excited because her son is set to see her. They were kicked out of the complex from before. Polly resumed tile work and hoped she didn’t kill Norberto. She sees him at work but isn’t sure if it’s real.
On the night Cookie’s son is set to show, he comes much later than expected. Him and Cookie have a sweet and short reunion.
Cookie invites Polly to live with her and her son, and she plans to go, until her foreman calls her to go to the Head Office.
Once there, she’s worried she’ll be arrested for Norberto’s murder—even though she’s not sure he’s dead—and she fills out lots of paperwork and waits until she realizes she’s not a suspect. Instead, she finds out Norberto’s paid off her bond and got her a boat ticket to Buffalo, Frank’s last known location.
Polly gives Cookie her wedding ring as thanks and she heads to the terminal. She sees Norberto there and worries about his financial situation, but she can’t look at him. He says he just had to do the right thing. When she tells him she thought she killed him, he pleads with her to get on the boat.
Polly gives him Frank’s baseball cards. Norberto says he won’t forget her. When she boards the train, she looks back expecting to see something familiar. There is nothing.
Discussion Director: Eva Trakhtman
- Why do you think that Norberto was so reluctant to talk about his past and his relationship with Marta if this reluctance to speak could potentially damage the charade they’re putting on?
- In the flashback, when Polly and Frank went on their Cherry-blossom road trip, the two got into an argument about Polly seemingly approaching the relationship too nonchalantly, and Frank approaching it too seriously. How do you think the world of 1998 shifts these sentiments, if at all?
- On page 225, Polly struggles to come to terms with her mother’s death, she lays in the woods after school trying to remember her mom, to tether her. When Polly cries at the dinner table, Donna confronts her and finds out what she’s doing in the woods after school. Donna says, “Once something’s been done it can’t be undone.” and this becomes the motto with which Polly approaches her life. How do you feel this motto has translated into 1998?
- I feel like this is the conclusion that Polly has struggled to come to once she arrived in 1998. It took Polly a very long time to accept the fact that she has not thought through the full effects of her decision, and she is still living through the ripples of her decision. I believe that ultimately, because of this great travel through time, so far we have only seen Polly in her recovery stage. Polly does utilize this “once something’s been done it can’t be undone” approach with most aspects of her life, taking Baird’s betrayal with great stride, even sailing away from Norberto and Galveston still seemingly emotionally intact. I think that the only aspect of her life she doesn’t apply this motto to is her Frank-mission (Frission). Polly’s strong bond with Frank (or at least with his memories) makes him an exception, and even the driving force of this piece, because this “can’t be undone” attitude would keep Polly in one place attempting to be content, unless she has a driving force that betrays that attitude.
- In the scene where Cookie finally finds her son, why do you think Thea Lim made him purposefully late for the reunion party? What is the significance of that choice?
- What do you think of Polly and Norberto’s goodbye scene? Should Polly have given her baseball cards to Norberto even though they are her reminder of Frank? How do the stresses and conflicts of this world affect the way in which you see the rape-attempt (if at all) and the attempts to make up for it?
Discussion Director: Ellis Wilkins-Haverkamp
- What is the significance of Cookie in the overall narrative of Polly’s life and story?
- What similarities do you see between the characters of Baird and Norberto?
- Why does Polly recreate her date with Frank while brainstorming the backstory of how she and Norberto met? Additionally, what was the turning point that mad Polly realize she had betrayed Frank? (page 215-216)
- How does Frank’s perspective on time’s inevitability compare to Polly’s? Which do you more align with?
- Ultimately, I believe Frank and Polly differ in that Frank is always preparing for something to go wrong so that he can always remember when times were going his way, and generally has a bleak outlook on the negative potential of the future. This is well represented by how sad Frank gets as Polly brings up the hypothetical of if they were to break up in a day, as well as in the very first chapter, when Polly finds a baseball card (I think) from Frank that says “Something to remember us by,” demonstrating that he’s completely prepared to face the chance of he and Polly being separated forever, trying to keep good memories in mind. Polly, on the other hand (as we’ve seen) is somewhat overly optimistic, and believes everything will eventually work out. As a result, she doesn’t hold the same value of collecting as Frank does, because she assumes that the positive moments will always return to the present, with no need to hold too many mementos.
- Why did Polly give Norberto the baseball cards? What does this say about their relationship? (page 249)
Illustrator: Shelby Edison
This picture is of the cherry blossoms in Washington DC during the 1980s, when Polly and Frank take their trip to see the flowers. Frank has planned a full day of touring the city and taking in the cherry blossoms. Polly, on the other hand, would rather get lost in the city and spend time with Frank. They get into a fight over their disagreements, and Polly realizes that from losing her mother, she has a slight fear that once things happen, you cannot undo them. This picture relates to the book because it shows the sights they would’ve seen on their trip. The atmosphere is crowded, lively, and happy, while Polly and Frank feel alone and upset. The difference between the setting and the interior feelings really exemplify how this patch in Polly and Frank’s relationship is different from most of their other happy experiences together.
During the cherry blossom chapter of this section, how did learning about a part of Polly and Frank’s relationship that wasn’t ideal change your impression of the couple? For example, do you think that Polly and Frank’s relationship wasn’t as special as Polly’s memories tell her they are? Or does the relationship now feel more realistic?
Literary Luminary: eli johns-krull
- “Are they communists?”
“The opposite! They needed trading partners, so they kept their neighbors alive. Cooperation can be self-interested. But not here. In the ‘80s, people’d strip a corpse to survive. It was awful.” (205)
- “If you get close enough to the water, you can’t see behind you. You can pretend you’re on a beach, anywhere. Somewhere else.” (210)
- “The same place. But a different time…I guess that makes it a different place.” (211)I wanted to focus on this quote for several reasons. For one, it ties back to a discussion we touched on last class about how Polly has been treating the past as if it was a different place that still exists and is now being forced to reckon with the fact that it has ceased to be entirely in the face of time marching on. I thought it was interesting to see this idea echoed by Norberto in a moment where he and Polly are attempting to become closer in the face of their impending union. It shows a parallel between the two characters; both think of the past as a place separate from the one they now live in, but it seems Norberto understands better (and has for longer) that the past, as much as it may be a different place, is not one to which he can return. He can only imagine himself back to it when he stands on the beach, unable to see the present for what it truly is. At the same time, this quote spoke to me because it reminded me of the question “how many planks of a boat can you replace before it becomes a different boat entirely?” This quote wrestles with the same idea; how much can time change a place (or, for that matter, a person) before it becomes somewhere completely different?
- “You cannot put life on hold to have a moment of grief, so every second, half the people in the world are split in two This is what they mean by life goes on, and the worst is that you go on along with it too.” (216)
- “She wants to tell him that the past is safe, no matter what. But she knows, with a stinging pang, that it is the future he is concerned with.” (229)
- “The only thing worse than leaving without saying good-bye to Norberto was seeing him again.” (247)
- “Once something’s been done, it can’t be undone.” (249)
Literary Terms Expert: Maja Neal
- “There was nothing on the horizon. Only the flat line of forever.”
- “It was otherworldly and reaching, like the sand was stretching out its arms to touch somebody.” (P. 219)
- “The tourists seem to think the car is not a car, but a rock to be brooked, as if by a stream.” (P. 230)
- “Yet this vision ruined her ability to be a machine. Now every time she passed that window, she could not help but look, a twitch that spoiled the groove.” (P. 239)
I liked this expression specifically because the whole ordeal with Norberto was especially, grossly captivating, the kind of story that makes you go “ew ew ew” but also compels you to know how it ends. Polly’s reaction after the attempted assault is almost indicative of that. She hallucinates him (or doesn’t?) out of fear at first, but after he sells his house to gain her passage to Buffalo, she fluctuates between guilt and shame, going back and forth on whether or not she wants to see him. This particular sentence is from before, so she’s still working at her tile job with the H-1s and is terrified of Norberto or the police finding her and arresting her for murder. I liked how the expression capitalized on the workers’ dehumanization – they are treated like machines – and “a twitch that spoiled the groove” is just a lovely-sounding metaphor for one thing that’s throwing Polly’s whole life off.