Study Guide

The Usual Rules Themes

  • Abandonment

    In The Usual Rules, Wendy deals with a fair amount of abandonment from the people she should be able to count on the most. Yes, we're talking about her own parents. Her father Garrett is largely absent throughout her young life, and although Wendy's mother would never leave her family on purpose, she ends up dying in the September 11 attacks, and poor Wendy (and the rest of her family) has to learn how to cope with her absence. With her mother gone, Wendy has to grow up quickly and face the hard facts of life—whether she's ready for it or not.

    Questions About Abandonment

    1. Why doesn't Garrett spend more time with Wendy during her childhood? Can his abandonment ever be completely resolved?
    2. Why does Janet decide to leave Garrett and raise Wendy on her own? How does this affect Wendy's experience of losing her mother?
    3. How long do Wendy, Josh, and Louie hold out hope Janet is still coming home? Why? What happens to inspire each of them to accept her death?

    Chew on This

    Even though Wendy is the one who actually decides to leave New York City, she still feels betrayed and abandoned by the fact that Josh and Louie don't try to stop her.

    By bringing Wendy to live with him in California, Garrett is trying to make amends for how absent he was before—both to Wendy and to Janet.

  • Family

    From the beginning of The Usual Rules, it's clear Wendy doesn't have the stereotypical family. She has a stepfather named Josh and a half-brother named Louie, both of whom she considers more of her "real" family than she does her biological dad, who lives all the way in California and hardly ever visits or calls her. But after her mom Janet dies in the 9/11 attacks, Wendy goes to live with Garrett (her biological father), and when she does, she ends up gaining and creating a new family on the West Coast to accompany the amazing family waiting for her in New York City.

    Questions About Family

    1. How does Wendy feel about her mother marrying Josh at first? Does her opinion change over time? What does this reveal about her understanding of family?
    2. Does Wendy actually want to go and live with Garrett forever? Why or why not?
    3. Why do you think Garrett decides to step in and take care of Wendy after Janet dies? Be specific and back up your answer with evidence from the text.
    4. What is Garrett's relationship with his own mother like? How do you think this influences his relationship to family in general? Look at his dynamic with Janet, Wendy, and Carolyn.

    Chew on This

    Family is about love and being there for each other more than it is about sharing the same blood in The Usual Rules.

    When she moves to California, Wendy doesn't lose her old family; she gains another one in Garrett, Carolyn, and all the friends that she makes.

  • Friendship

    In The Usual Rules, when Wendy finds out her mother has died in the World Trade Center attacks, she relies heavily on her family and friends to help her through this difficult time. Her best friend, Amelia, who is often funny and sarcastic, totally gives her a shoulder to cry on, and her mother's best friend, Kate, checks in all the time to make sure Wendy, Josh, and Louie are getting on okay. Even after Wendy moves to Davis, she continues to lean on her friends, both old and new. Her new friends—Carolyn, Alan, Violet, and Todd—all rise to the occasion and help her to work through her grief, too. Go team.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. How does Wendy's friendship with Amelia change after she moves to California? Does it change at its core or just in superficial ways?
    2. Do you think Kate is a bad friend for starting a relationship with Josh? Why or why not?
    3. Why is Wendy so drawn to Todd when she first meets him? Be specific and give evidence from the text.

    Chew on This

    Even though Amelia seems inconsiderate when she talks about how Wendy's mother is dead, she's really being a good friend and giving Wendy what she needs in her life—a dose of the cold, hard truth.

    When Wendy moves to California, she wants to start over, and in doing so makes friends with people she never would have talked to in the past—like a single teenage mom (Violet) and a middle-aged bookstore owner (Alan). These friendships help her relate differently to herself and her life.

  • The Home

    In The Usual Rules, Wendy leaves the only home she's ever known—New York City—to go live with her biological father in California. Throughout the story, we see Wendy living in these two different places and trying to come to grips with where she feels the most "at home" while struggling with the fear that she might never feel like anyplace is home again without her mother there. Ultimately, Wendy enjoys her time in California but decides she has to go back to New York City to live with Josh and Louie. Wherever they are is where she needs to be.

    Questions About The Home

    1. Why does Wendy decide to go live with Garrett in California? What does this change of scenery enable her to do?
    2. Do you think Wendy ever seriously considers staying in Davis? Why or why not? What does this tell you about her relationship to home?
    3. How does Wendy's presence make Garrett's place more of a home? Bust out evidence from the text.

    Chew on This

    In The Usual Rules, home isn't so much about place as it is about people.

    In The Usual Rules, home is ultimately very much about place.

  • Guilt and Blame

    Things are pretty tough in The Usual Rules after Janet dies, and Wendy finds herself wracked with guilt over how she treated her mother in her last days. Even though she's just been having the same kind of problems that thirteen-year-old girls all around the world have with their parents, Wendy feels horrible for fighting with her mother and for saying and thinking mean things about her. Throughout the book, Wendy continues to torture herself with memories of how she disappointed her mother—which only makes her grief and sadness more acute.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. Why does Wendy feel so bad about what she said to her mother? Be specific, please.
    2. How does Wendy blame her mother for her parents' divorce? How does this affect their relationship? Does it factor into Wendy's grieving process?
    3. How does Wendy feel about Josh when he allows her to go live with Garrett?
    4. What do Garrett and Carolyn do when they learn that Wendy's been skipping school? Why?

    Chew on This

    When Wendy learns about her mother's death, she has to deal with both the grief of losing her and her guilt over the fact that they were fighting before Janet died.

    Garrett wants to be a part of Wendy's life now not just because he feels sorry for her after her mother's death, but because he wants to make it up to her; he knows that he's been a bad and absent father.

  • Sadness

    There's enough sadness in The Usual Rules to fill a book—which is exactly what happens. The book chronicles Wendy's grief and heart wrenching pain after the events of 9/11, which takes her beloved mother away from her. Everyone who loved Janet reacts to her death in different ways. Her husband, Josh, doesn't know how to be the sole head of the family; Wendy moves across the country to live with her biological dad and stops going to school; and little Louie doesn't fully understand that his mother is dead and keeps lashing out and throwing tantrums. They're all showing their sadness in vastly different ways.

    Questions About Sadness

    1. Why does Louie keep throwing tantrums after Janet dies? How does Wendy show her sadness to the outside world?
    2. Do you think Josh and Kate would've ever gotten together if they weren't so sad over Janet's death? Why or why not?
    3. Is Garrett sad? How can you tell?

    Chew on This

    Although Wendy is sad about her mother's death, she is shocked when she learns that Josh wishes he were dead, too—the idea of also losing him terrifies her and only magnifies her grief.

    Louie experiences more sadness than anyone because, as a little kid, he continues to suffer the realization that she's not coming home over and over again. He just doesn't understand the permanence of death.

  • Identity

    In The Usual Rules, Wendy is going through a particularly hard time that forces her to reexamine her life and try to figure out who she really is. As a thirteen-year-old girl, Wendy is already dealing with the question of personal identity and how to distinguish herself from her family and her peers.

    But when her mother dies and Wendy ends up moving to California, she decides to start all over: Instead of being the good student, Wendy starts skipping school; she also starts dieting and pursuing the thin body she's always desired. And instead of being entirely uninterested in romance, Wendy starts meeting—and kissing—some cute boys. Talk about a personality shift!

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does Wendy become a different person when she moves to California? How does she remain the same?
    2. How does Garrett change as a father over the course of the book? Does he really change? Bust out evidence from the text to prove it.
    3. Does Wendy go back to her New York persona when she returns home at the end of the book? If so, how? If not, why not?

    Chew on This

    Wendy plans to create a whole new identity for herself when she moves to California, but although she does make some changes, what she really ends up doing is finding herself, not changing who she is.

    Although Garrett wants to be close to his mother, he can't because she wants him to be someone different—and he can't pretend to be that person for her.

  • Memory and the Past

    Because Wendy is dealing with the grief of losing her mother, The Usual Rules is rife with flashbacks and memories from her past filled with details of interactions with her mother and the relationship they used to have. Now that her mother is dead, these long-ago memories are all Wendy has of her, and she keeps bringing them up in order to keep her mother's memory alive.

    Thing is, even remembering her mother can be tough sometimes. Wendy is filled with regret by memories of the arguments they had or times when she was just a little brat. She wants to take it all back. But she can't.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Why is Wendy so focused on memories of when she was mean to her mother? Why not focus on the good times?
    2. How do Garrett's memories of his upbringing affect the way that he treats his own daughter?
    3. Do you think Wendy's memories of her mother are accurate? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Even remembering good times with her mother pains Wendy because she recognizes that she'll never have those times back or be able to create new memories with her mother.

    Although Todd had a pretty awful family life when he was younger, he still remembers the kind things that his brother did for him, and these memories are what compel him to search the country for Kevin.

  • Mortality

    Death is a pretty big specter in The Usual Rules—you know, since it's a book about 9/11 and its aftermath. Our main girl Wendy goes from being a carefree thirteen-year-old girl to someone who is intimately acquainted with death after her own mother dies in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Janet's death reverberates through the lives of all the characters, and they each deal with her absence in their own way. One thing's constant, though: Things aren't easy after Janet dies, and nothing is "normal" anymore.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Why doesn't Louie understand that his mother is dead? Where does he think she is?
    2. How does Wendy process Janet's death? Does she accept that her mother is really gone?
    3. Why does Josh say he would rather be the one who died?
    4. What is Garrett's reaction when his own mother dies? Why is he so upset?

    Chew on This

    Even though Louie doesn't fully understand the concept of death, he knows something awful has happened to his mother, and this is what leads to his fits and tantrums.

    When his mother dies, Garrett isn't upset because he'll miss her—he's upset because they'll never have the chance to have a good relationship now.

  • Coming of Age

    In The Usual Rules, Wendy is on the cusp of adolescence—as a thirteen-year-old, she's starting to change both physically and emotionally. The death of her mother only speeds up this process. Suddenly Wendy isn't just a kid anymore; she's a young woman focused on discovering herself and learning how to cope with some very serious adult issues, like the death of a loved one.

    When Janet dies and Wendy moves to California, she has to deal with a huge amount of turmoil and change in her life—and Wendy rises to the occasion spectacularly. She grows up, blossoming into a young woman her mother would absolutely be proud of.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. How does Wendy start to explore her sexuality over the course of the book?
    2. Do you think Wendy or Amelia grows up more throughout the book? Why? Turn to the text for evidence.
    3. How does Janet's death force both of her children to grow up? What similarities and differences do you notice between Louie and Wendy?
    4. Does Garrett become more mature by taking care of Wendy? If so, how? If not, how does this contribute to Wendy's growth?

    Chew on This

    Surviving the events of 9/11 and losing her mother forces Wendy to grow up a lot faster than she would otherwise—she can't help but see the world in a new, more uncertain light.

    Without going to California, Wendy would not have grown up as much as she does over the course of the book.