Reading Guide

What the Family Needed

What the Family Needed


“Okay, tell me which you want,” Alek asks his cousin at the outset of What the Family Needed. “To be able to fly or to be invisible.” And soon Giordana, a teenager suffering the bitter fallout of her parents’ divorce, finds that she can, at will, become as invisible as she feels. Later, Alek’s mother, newly adrift in the disturbing awareness that all is not well with her younger son, can suddenly swim with Olympic endurance. Over three decades, in fact, each member of this gorgeously imagined extended family discovers, at a moment of crisis, that he or she possesses a supernatural power.

But instead of crimes to fight and villains to vanquish, they confront inner demons, and their extraordinary abilities prove not to be magic weapons so much as expressions of their fears and longings as they struggle to come to terms with who they are and what fate deals them. As the years pass, their lives intersect and overlap in surprising and poignant ways, and they discover that the real magic lies not in their superpowers but in the very human and miraculous way they are able to accept, protect, and love one another.


Steven Amsterdam is the author of Things We Didn’t See Coming, which was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and won The Age Book of the Year Award, among other honors. A native New Yorker and a nurse, he lives in Melbourne, Australia.



  1. Steven Amsterdam has said in an interview that he believes there are two superpowers for everyone: the superpower you would wish for and the one that your loved ones think you need. How does this idea play out across the members of the family?

  2. Most of the characters end up using their powers for the benefit of others before themselves. Who do you think does this most effectively? The least?

  3. Why does Amsterdam place such emphasis on sibling relationships? How do the tensions, miscommunications, and intimacies among the three sets of siblings in the story shape the way the family interacts as a whole?

  4. Why do you think the author places Alek at the center of the story? What aspects of his character make him the best vehicle for the supernatural aspects of the story? How does he color our experience of the other characters and of the book as a whole?

  5. What are the differences in the ways Natalie and Ruth approach motherhood? Did you sympathize more or less with one of them? Do you think the author was making a judgment about either as a parent?

  6. Amsterdam leaves certain supernatural aspects of the story unexplained. Why?

  7. At the end of the story, Amsterdam reveals that one of the characters is able to alter the course of history. How did this reshape your perception of earlier events in the novel?

  8. Has there ever been a moment during a chaotic time in which you wanted to have a superpower of your own? What were the circumstances, and what did you wish for?

  9. Though the novel has certain elements of fantasy, the book has a very different feel from the typical fantasy novel. How does it participate in and differ from the genre? What is gained in the departure, and what is lost?

  10. All of the characters, upon discovering their powers, are forced to confront the possibility that they have lost their grip on reality. Why do you think the author made this narrative choice?