Excerpted from Compass Rose by John Casey. Copyright © 2010 by John Casey. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, 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.
John Casey was born in 1939 in Worcester, Massachusetts, and educated at Harvard College, Harvard Law School, and the University of Iowa. His novel Spartina won the National Book Award in 1989. He lives with his wife in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he is a professor of English literature at the University of Virginia.
“[Compass Rose] is marvelous, returning us to South County, Pierce and Sawtooth Point. . . . This splendid novel lives and breathes with all its psychic powers and complex human spirit.” —Providence Journal
“Beautiful, elegiac. . . . Casey’s portrayal of . . . South County is carefully observed, lovingly rendered and delicately parsed—a full-throated celebration of the natural world.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Casey can write the thoughts, feelings, emotions, hopes and dreams of women, be they wives, mothers, daughters or lovers, better than anyone.” —The Seattle Times
“Each character in Mr. Casey’s large cast is gratifyingly complex, and the novel hums with energy.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Casey is a brilliant observer. . . . Breathtaking.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“An old-fashioned comfort food novel.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Splendid. . . . By the end of the book [readers] may well feel as if they themselves had spent several years living in South County. And many such readers, I predict, will be reluctant to leave.” —Troy Jollimore, Los Angeles Times
“John Casey luminously celebrates a young woman who is indeed the compass for her fractured family and community. . . . Rose is a literary rarity—the good and tender-hearted character who is also credible. And Casey has written an affecting story of the way it is—messy, difficult and sometimes radiantly splendid.” —The Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Mr. Casey describes the extreme claustrophobia and menace of small town living well. His Rhode Island hamlet is filled with gossip—that’s a given—but also the overlapping, intertwining relationships that exist in these kinds of insular communities. . . . Casey is so adept at presenting character. . . . It would be great to see them crewing the Pequod, searching for that ever-elusive whale. Even Moby Dick couldn’t sink the likes of these women.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“The genius of novelist John Casey is that he can make the ordinary sublime.” —South County Independent
“A subtly unusual novel.” —The Columbus Dispatch
“The enjoyment of this novel is derived from the unobtrusive skill with which Casey charts the entanglements, convergences, repulsions, and compromises of life in a close-knit community. . . . Casey . . . is marvelously adept at conveying the reflections of an intelligent but not intellectual character such as Elsie. . . . The strongest impression left on the reader, however, is how stubbornly the characters remain themselves even as they are inescapably drawn into each others’ lives.” —The Boston Globe
“There is real greatness to John Casey’s writing in Compass Rose, which provides a realistic window in to the lives of those who make their living off the Salt Marshes of Rhode Island. There are many lovely, sharp details surrounding the scenery of this estuary, and characters are complicated and fascinating—especially young Rose.” —Bookreporter
“This is the kind of novel you don’t just read—you dwell in—and when you come to the final scenes . . . you hate to see it end.” —Hudson Valley News
“Casey wades with aplomb through the imposed intimacies of a small setting and the closed feel of a place where families have lived for generations, and it takes years for outsiders to ever really belong.” —The Oregonian
1. Have you read Spartina? How did your knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of the characters affect your reading experience?
2. A compass rose is the circular design on a nautical chart, with directional points resembling the petals of a flower. What is the metaphor of the title? In what ways is Rose like a compass?
3. Miss Perry compares the end of her life to the last days of Rome (page 68). Where else might that metaphor apply?
4. Which characters care the most about class distinctions? How does that enhance or detract from their lives?
5. Elsie seems to relish being an observer. What does that say about her as a character? Where does it lead her?
6. On page 105, Johnny says, “Shame is a group thing. When a group mistrusts the outside, they have to trust the inside.” Where else does this play out in the story? Are there characters who should feel shame but don’t?
7. Reread Dick’s monologue on pages 110–111. What message is he sending to his sons? How do they use the insights he’s sharing?
8. On page 136, Miss Perry says, “It is disconcerting that someone I don’t much care for, I mean Phoebe Fitzgerald, has taken a wider interest in everyday life than Jack has.” What is she talking about? Compare and contrast the ways in which Phoebe and Jack interact with the other characters.
9. Discuss the triangles in the novel: Rose, Elsie, Mary; Rose, Elsie, May; Elsie, May, Dick. How do the characters benefit from these relationships?
10. On page 177, Phoebe quotes Deirdre: “It was a metaphor for how to deal with anything—you just start taking care of little things and pretty soon you’re feeling better about everything.” Which characters in the novel behave this way? How does it affect the others?
11. What is the significance, both metaphorical and to the characters, of the loss of Spartina?
12. On page 289, Mary talks about heroism and what men and women perceive as heroic. Which characters do you consider to be heroic, and why?
13. Discuss the passage on pages 313–316 in which Elsie watches a snake raid a bluebirds’ nest. What is its significance?
14. “It wasn’t fair that men got the verbs and she ended up with adjectives” thinks Elsie (page 333). What does she mean by this? Are there women in the novel who “get the verbs”?
15. Rose is a natural-born singer, while Elsie has a tin ear. What does this signify about their relationship?
16. Which of her three mother figures is most influential for Rose: Elsie, Mary, or May?
17. Discuss Rose’s relationship with Dick. Do you think he regrets that she was born?
18. Why does Elsie seek out Dick for a sexual encounter after so many years?
19. Miss Perry once said to Elsie, “Do we stand outside of nature, or do we stand inside it? Is nature everything but us? Or is it simply everything?” (page 384). What is the role of nature in the novel? How does Casey use nature as a metaphor?
20. The last line of the novel is “Here we are. We live in South County.” Why is this such an important notion? What does it mean to live there?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)