Excerpted from Above the Thunder by Renee Manfredi. Copyright © 2003 by Renée Manfredi. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Reading Groups love discovering a great book, and Renée Manfredi’s captivating novel offers all the elements for exciting discussion. Here, she talks about the rich characters and provocative themes in Above the Thunder.
All your characters struggle with loss, yet they all in their own way refuse to surrender to it. Did that come as a surprise to you?
RM: Every fictional character I can think of is defined by loss; there’s no novel in which all the characters have plenty of everything. Yet some of the writers I most admire—Jane Austen, Michael Cunningham, Anne-Marie MacDonald—provide hope in equal measure with loss. This is what I wanted for my characters.
Your eleven-year-old heroine is such an independent and captivating girl. Where did Flynn come from?
RM: In the early drafts of the novel, Flynn was a fairly typical child. Because she was so hyperattuned to her environment, though, she began to draw in the other characters’ strong emotions, and she became the one who always spoke the truth, even if the truth was more emotional than factual. Her eccentricity emerged in part from her tendency to say what the others were unable or unwilling to express.
Your novel isn’t a comic one, yet a few of your scenes are extremely funny. How do humor and tragedy co-exist so comfortably in your writing?
RM: I think humor is a survival strategy. Some of my characters get through tragedy in moments of high comedy: Jack has his moments of giddiness; and Anna turns to an eccentric neighbor when grief becomes too much.
The four main characters constitute one of the most unconventional families in fiction. Is this a subject that has especially interested you?
RM: The theme of family and belonging evolved naturally from the characters. I didn’t know when I started the novel that the characters would become so vital to one another.
Do you feel your work explores any subject that doesn’t get much attention in fiction?
RM: What may be a departure is having characters that deal with grief, loss and love in unconventional ways. My work may be more sympathetic to spirituality than most contemporary American fiction. In other literary traditions, spirituality, the mystery of what can’t be measured or seen, is more of a given–Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits is a case in point. One of the characters in Above the Thunder explores grief, loss, and love by talking to the dead, reviewing other lives, and having visions.
1. As the novel opens, Anna doubts her own capacity for compassion: “Deep down she suspected that this trait, along with the maternal one, had never been activated in her. She doubted if it was possible to understand someone else’s suffering. Even her beloved husband whose pain had become a private geography on which she couldn’t trespass” [p. 21]. Is this cynicism or honesty at work in Anna? Do her relationships with Flynn and Jack change her aptitude for compassion and/or her ability to recognize it?
2. Above the Thunder is rich in symbolism, particularly surrounding Anna’s voyage to self-knowledge. What is the symbolic significance of her collection of antique hair pins? Her cell pathology slides? What does it mean when she randomly buys a collection of books about female hunters? Why does she have a penchant for dropping things? What other symbols does the author weave into Anna’s story?
3. What complex facets of motherhood—or the desire for it—does the author explore through the characters of Anna, Greta, Poppy, Leila, and Jane? What distinction does Anna draw between “maternal instinct” and “motherhood” [p. 116]? What different aspects of the concept of fatherhood are represented by Marvin, Mike, Jack, and Stuart?
4. Flynn’s point of view is introduced abruptly at the end of the fifth chapter. What does the reader glean about Flynn from this short, powerful passage? What foreshadowing does it contain?
5. The AIDS support group brings Anna into contact with Stuart and Jack. Is there more significance to the group than serving the plot? How does Anna’s involvement with the group affect her?
6. As Jack grapples with the mystery of who has given him the AIDS virus, he muses: “Mysteries and miracles, miracles and destinations, weren’t that far apart, in his view. The stricken and the blessed both followed the same path, faith the common point of origin. In the end, there was no difference between Bethlehem and the bathhouses” [p. 79]. What does he mean by “destinations” here? What sort of faith has led him to his dilemma?
7. How does the author weave subtle hints about reincarnation into the text to make Flynn’s prophecies more sinister and suggestive? What is Flynn’s vision of herself, Marvin, Poppy, and Anna in the next life? What behavior does Anna exhibit that seems to corroborate Flynn’s prediction about her?
8. Jack does not fear death but rather fears the possibility of continuing in the beyond: “Spirit without body was repugnant, desire no longer limited by the boundary of skin, expanding to fill the universe, love like sound waves going on forever, not stopped by the density of flesh. How could he ever keep track of himself when his margins were infinite?” [p. 198] In what way does this same fear plague Anna, as well as Flynn? Can it be argued that this is, in fact, the theme of the novel? How does each of these three characters handle this fear?
9. During a particularly alarming episode of Flynn’s irrational behavior, Anna begs the girl to always tell the truth: “You should never hide. Never hide the things that make you who you are” [p. 158]. Yet asking this promise of the child fills Anna with an inexplicable sense of dread. “The truth—whatever Anna meant by it, and she didn’t quite know now—was likely to deliver her granddaughter into the hands of the enemy” [p. 159]. What are the possible meanings of the word “enemy” in this context?
10. What is the significance of the Mahatma Gandhi epigraph, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world”? Which of the novel’s characters yearn for change, and which ones achieve it?
11. Why does Greta insist that “Poppy had nothing to do with what Flynn did. She’s not responsible”? Is it possible to separate Flynn’s propensity for depression from her abandonment by her mother? Does Anna find Poppy culpable?
12. What role does the late Hugh play in the way Anna approaches her new life in Maine? How does the memory of him act as a conduit between her and Flynn? What finally allows Anna to let go of Hugh to the extent that she is open to the possibility of romance?
13. Are the adults in the novel too self-absorbed to realistically see how troubled and endangered Flynn is, or are they earnestly trying to allow her the freedom of eccentricity? Why does Anna muse only half-heartedly about Flynn’s possible need for professional help? Is the consequence of Flynn’s action an avoidable tragedy or an instance of fate?
14. During a game of “would you rather” with Flynn, Anna chooses to be a fig tree rather than a whale, stating, “I would always prefer to bear fruit” [p. 139]. How can this conviction be reconciled with her apparent distaste for motherhood? Does this moment mark a turning point for Anna, or is she simply accessing her real feelings on the matter?
15. What is the significance of the birch log fire Anna smells the morning of the tragedy?
16. Jack imagines infection with the AIDS virus as a kind of pregnancy, giving him a sense of being rooted, or caught up in a continuum. He envisions “the lineage of all those he’d ever loved and his lovers’ loved ones, through this virus, a kind of terrible, merciless child who gestated over and over” [p. 40]. What does this odd reflection reveal about Jack? Is he a likeable character despite his patent untrustworthiness? How does Jack’s character evolve over the course of the novel?
17. What does Anna mean to convey when she tells Marvin, “Mourning is easier than worry. Or any of those emotions you feel for the living” [p. 116]? Has she closed herself off to the possibility of love and relationships? Or is she entering another phase of dealing with them?