Excerpted from American Music by Jane Mendelsohn. Copyright © 2010 by Jane Mendelsohn. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, 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.
1. American Music is preceded by two epigraphs, one from Shakespeare: “O boys, this story / The world may read in me: my body’s mark’d / With Roman swords”; and one from Billie Holiday: “If you expect happy days, look out.” In what ways do these quotes introduce major themes of the novel? Why would Mendelsohn choose such disparate figures as Shakespeare and Billie Holiday?
2. Why has Mendelsohn chosen American Music for her title? In what ways is music important in the novel?
3. Milo at first resists Honor’s attempts to help him. What is the turning point that allows him to open up to her?
4. American Music is centered around the idea that stories reside in the body and can be released through touch. Is this simply a metaphor, or does it represent a process that can happen outside the pages of a novel?
5. In what ways are Milo and Honor like readers within the novel? Why do they feel driven to understand the stories that are emerging from Milo?
6. When a taciturn Vivian is being interviewed before her show at the Museum of Modern Art, one of the museum’s benefactors says: “I can see why you never married. You don’t want to reveal anything” (p. 63). What parts of her life does Vivian want to keep secret? In what ways is American Music as a whole about the process of keeping and revealing secrets? What are the novel’s most surprising revelations?
7. Why does Iris steal Vivian’s photographs? Is she justified in doing so?
8. What effects does Mendelsohn achieve by layering her novel with the stories of so many characters from such different time periods?
9. Late in the novel, when Honor kisses Milo, “she felt a peace in not having to imagine anymore. Trouble starts, she thought, when we take the symbol for reality. . . . She didn’t have to do that anymore. . . ” (p. 211). Why would Honor feel peace at “not having to imagine anymore”? In what ways has she taken the symbol for the reality?
10. Mendelsohn's prose style might be described as lyrical or impressionistic. What are the most distinctive features of her writing? How does it differ from more straightforwardly realistic narrative prose?
11. Is American Music primarily a love story? How are the love relationships between Joe and Vivian, Hyacinth and Parvin, and Milo and Honor connected?
12. What does American Music reveal about the trauma of war? How has Milo been affected by nearly being killed in Iraq and by being pinned under the body of a dead fellow soldier?
13. Honor tells Milo: “Your body is like a haunted house. . . . And it seems as though I live there” (p. 185). In what ways is this true?
14. American Music is a novel of many disparate threads—different time frames, different characters and relationships, different generations in the same family. How does Mendelsohn bring these together at the end? What larger connections exist between all the stories in the novel?
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