“Joan Wickersham’s brilliant The News From Spain shows, in all its twisty beauty, what a short story collection can do. The stories are gorgeous in themselves, but the way they speak to each other is truly extraordinary.”—Elizabeth McCracken, author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination
From the author of the acclaimed memoir The Suicide Index, a virtuosic collection of stories, each a stirring parable of the power of love and the impossibility of understanding, much less controlling, it.
In these seven beautifully wrought variations on a theme, a series of characters trace and retrace eternal yet ever-changing patterns of love and longing, connection and loss. The stories range over centuries and continents—from eighteenth-century Vienna, where Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte are collaborating on their operas, to America in the 1940s, where a love triangle unfolds among a doctor, a journalist, and the president’s wife. A race-car driver’s widow, a nursing-home resident and her daughter, a paralyzed dancer married to a famous choreographer—all feel the overwhelming force of passion and renunciation. With uncanny emotional exactitude, Wickersham shows how we never really know what’s in someone else’s heart, or in our own; how we continually try to explain others and to console ourselves; and how love, like storytelling, is ultimately a work of the imagination.
Excerpted from The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham. Copyright © 2012 by Joan Wickersham. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1. The book opens with a succinct yet palpable description of the motel Susanne and John are staying in: “The rooms smelled of disinfectant and of bodies. . . .Outside, the wind was dazzling and salty” (p. 3). How does this establish an emotional backdrop to the narrative that follows? Which physical details in the descriptions of the wedding party (pp. 14–20) and the meeting between Susanne and Barnaby (pp. 22–25) offer insights into the psychological state of the characters?
2. Compare Barbara and Barnaby’s reasons for getting married (p. 21) to Susanne’s reflections on her marriage (pp. 23–24). Do their points of view represent the real choices open to them or are they based on compromise and rationalization? Why are Barnaby and Susanne reluctant to share their thoughts with each other? Are there limits to the trust enjoyed between friends? If so, why?
3. Harriet and Rebecca know that between them “love has always had to be proved. It is there; and it gets proved, over and over” (p. 29). In what ways does Harriet’s illness become a testing ground for both of them? Is it surprising or unusual that “they were having, in the middle of all this dire stuff, a good time together” (p. 34)? Why does their intimacy deteriorate during the periods Harriet when enjoys relatively good health?
4. How do the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship affect Rebecca’s approach to the men in her life and influence the course of her affairs with Peter and with Ben?
5. The third story in the book, told in the second person, presents the point of view of an unnamed young girl; it is also the only story divided into distinct sections. What effect do these techniques have on the reader’s impressions of the protagonist, the events described, and the other characters?
6. The narrative of the third story captures the awkwardness and excitement of becoming a teenager—of finding a place within a school’s social structure, discovering the opposite sex, flourishing under a special teacher’s care, and observing often puzzling adult behavior. In what ways do each of the mini-chapters in this story set the stage for scandalous revelation and the girl’s reaction to it (pp. 75–76)? Why is the summation (“The Rest of the Story” and “The End”) related from an adult point of view?
7. What part do memories and dreams play in the dancer’s attempts to reconcile herself to her physical helplessness? When her husband leaves for the tour, “They kiss—familiar, fond, nothing more, except she thinks there is a careful brightness between them, an implicit understanding that to regret, or even acknowledge any awareness of, their mutual unerotic kindness would be pointless and unwise” (pp. 84–85). Is this the best (or only) way for these characters to deal with their situation, or would they benefit from more openness and honesty?
8. What do the details about Malcolm’s private life add to the central portrait of the dancer’s troubled marriage? Are there similarities between the two relationships? Between the dancer and Malcolm, the choreographer and Tim? What do the scene in the bathtub and the story the dancer tells Malcolm illustrate about the power of illusion and fantasy in our lives?
9. Do the sketches of Charlie and Liza (pp. 116–19) and Alice (pp. 119–24) establish a sense of how their meeting will unfold? Does the interview belie or conform to your expectations? What particular moments or comments transform the dynamics of the encounter and why?
10. What inspires Liza to confess her secret to Alice? What qualities, experiences, or beliefs unite Liza and Alice despite the differences in their ages and situations? Why do people often tell a relative stranger something they have hidden from those closest to them?
11. Discuss the parallels between the lives and loves of Elvira and Rosina and their namesakes in the Mozart and Da Ponte operas. (If you are not familiar with Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, brief summaries are readily available online). How do the playful yet pointed echoes of the classic operas (and the legendary adventures of Don Juan) set a tone and enrich the atmosphere of the contemporary stories? What do they convey about the universal complications, pain, and pleasures of love?
12. Da Ponte writes “But I have learned that memory is inconstant, which is perhaps its greatest danger and yet also its greatest virtue” (p. 160). What light does this cast on Elvira’s attachment to Johnny and its effect on her life and her work? To what extent is the friendship between Elvira and Rosina built on the sharing and preserving of their personal and perhaps faulty versions of the past?
13. A happily married woman unsettled by a sudden rush of love for a colleague sums up her emotional turmoil with both wit and poignancy: “My feelings—let’s hold on to this idea of them as shuffling Victorians, let’s make them servants, an entire uniformed household staff—were fresh, raw, perpetually startled. They weren’t sensible” (p.178). Why is this metaphor so effective? What does it say about the battle between emotions and reason, between heart and head?
14. The final story begins with a simple pronouncement: “Some of this is fiction, and some isn’t” (p. 176). To what extent does the appeal of the story about the doctor, the journalist, and the president’s wife stem from the combination of fact and fiction? Why does Wickersham leave the “famous woman” unnamed although her identity is quite clear? What draws the woman to the doctor and him to her? In what ways do her public and her private identities overlap, and how do they differ? What effect does this have on the way she conducts herself with the doctor? Why does the discovery of the journalist’s affair with the doctor affect her so deeply (pp.198–200)? Does the narrator present each character in an objective way or does her own situation color her opinions and speculations about them?
15. Linking her two stories, the narrator of the last story says, “I am writing about women, about love and humiliation. Men do it to us, but mostly we do it to ourselves. We love the wrong people; we love at the wrong time. We think we can make it right, reconcile the irreconcilable” (p. 194). Which other stories feature women who struggle to explain, justify, or simply make the best of difficult relationships? Are there male characters who find themselves in similar situations?
16. Infidelity and betrayal play a central role in The News from Spain. Many of the characters are involved in or are considering an affair; friendships and family relationships are also betrayed, either intentionally or as a consequence of carelessness or self-interest. Discuss the various forms of unfaithfulness and deception depicted in these stories and what they reveal about the unpredictable, often uncontrollable passions that underlie acts of transgression.
17. “A love story—your own or anyone else’s—is interior, hidden. It can never be accurately reported, only imagined. It is all dreams and invention. It’s guesswork” (p. 201). How does this insight shape and inform The News from Spain?
18. What is the significance of the subtitle “Seven Variations on a Love Story”? Do you see these stories as parts of a whole or as separate entities? In what ways do the stories amplify one another? Does the arrangement create a unifying thread and forward momentum?