We’re recommending Susan Vreeland’s Lisette’s List, so if you or your book club choose it for a fall selection then be sure to enjoy these book club discussion questions!
1. Why did the novel need to begin with Pascal? How was he an important presence throughout the novel and an influence in Lisette’s deepening character?
2. What were the qualities that Lisette appreciated about André? About Maxime? Did this difference affect her love for both of them? How?
3. As Lisette was becoming more comfortable in Roussillon, what did she find in it that she liked, or even loved? As a reader, did you want her to make this adjustment, or were you holding out for a complete and speedy return to Paris? If she had moved back to Paris right after the end of the war, what would she have lost in addition to the paintings?
4. What made Lisette so conflicted about Bernard? What allowed her even to speak to him? Every gift he gave her had consequences. Should she have rejected and destroyed each one like she did the stockings? Were all the gifts similarly motivated and did they reveal the same qualities in Bernard? Was he wholly a bad man?
5. What constraints made finding the paintings take so long? How did Lisette’s changing emotional state contribute to the delay?
6. Was Héloïse a collaborator? Should she have been punished? Should Bernard have been punished? Should he have been removed from his post? In your mind, did his motives in siding with the Occupiers justify his stance? At one point in the revelation scene between Bernard and Lisette, she said, “I could charge you not just as a thief, but as a collaborator.” Why didn’t she? Do you respond differently to Bernard and to Héloïse?
7. With Maxime’s experience in the art world, he spoke at length in Chapter Twenty-three about what makes a painting great. Is there any criterion that he overlooked? Select a painting you love by any painter and apply Maxime’s criteria to it. What insightful observation about life or the world or yourself does the painting offer you?
8. How did the peripheral characters—Maurice, Sister Marie Pierre, Héloïse, Louise, Odette, Madame Bonnelly, Aimé Bonhomme—complement each other in influencing Lisette?
9. Consider the theme of articulation and communication. How did the scenes with Maxime and Lisette in the bories introduce this theme? What characters have a problem with communication? Under what circumstances do actions speak louder than words?
10. The letter by Marc Chagall to the artists of Paris is historically accurate except for mentioning the cause of Bella’s death. What effect did this letter have on Lisette, not just in terms of her emotional reaction but her subsequent thinking and actions? What did it enlarge for her? What did it make you realize about the possible loss of France’s art legacy? What would the effect of that loss be on France and French people? On the world?
11. In what way does Lisette’s List of Hungers and Vows differ from the popularized “bucket list” of contemporary usage? What was its purpose for her? Should she have added any hunger or vow that actually motivated her and that was missing? Why wasn’t “Participate in the art world in Paris” on her list? If you were to write such a list for yourself, what items might your list include?
12. In Chapter Sixteen, Lisette considers that it might be a higher art to invent a painting by assembling elements from one’s heart like Chagall did rather than painting only what one actually sees. She imagines such a painting of her own. What elements of her own life are reflected in her painting? What elements in your life might be reflected in such a painting if you were to paint your own Chagall?
13. What did you learn about art and its potential effect? About the region? About the Provençal character? About the war? Any war? Did any of these elements change your thinking?
Happy Reading! And be sure to stay in touch with Susan on her Facebook page!
We asked New York Times bestselling author Darcie Chan, author of The Mill River Redemption, to share her 6 favorite books with us. She returned with a great list!
Darcie Chan’s Top Six Favorite Reads
I have loved reading all of my life. I found it very difficult to choose only six books as my favorites, as there are so many more that I could have included here! But, each of the following books is simply wonderful, and I hope that you enjoy reading them as much as I did.
Slow Way Home by Michael Morris
This gorgeous novel is variously funny, gut-wrenching, frustrating, and uplifting. Like all the books on this list, I thought it was beautifully written. The characters are utterly real and compelling, particularly eight-year-old Brandon, from whose perspective the story is written. The plot focuses on his grandparents’ struggle to protect him from their daughter, who runs off with her latest boyfriend and abandons him at a bus station. I’m the mother of a little boy, and Brandon’s plight touched me deeply. My heart ached for him and cheered with him at the end. Also, I was impressed by the author’s skill at pulling the reader into the story. The emotional resonance of the story is great, and I could almost feel the humidity of the South settling against my skin.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
There are very few books that completely blow me away, but this first novel did. Apparently, it had the same effect on many other people, as it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize! In this story about a childless couple in 1920s Alaska, the author’s choice of language is exquisite, and I was surprised at how skillfully the author wreaked havoc with my sensibilities. First, I was convinced that a wild little girl seen by the couple was a figment of their imaginations. But then, I started to believe the girl was real before being slung once again in the opposite direction. The answer is revealed in a moving, surprising ending. This story is unforgettable.
Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived by Ralph Helfer
I tend to read mostly fiction, but this is a nonfiction book that I absolutely loved. It is a captivating story of the lifelong bond between a boy and a female Asian elephant. The story takes the reader from Europe, through the exotic teak forests of India, and then to the circus in the United States. It’s an amazing testament to the intelligence of elephants and of their ability to form lasting friendships with people.
Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
This story has so many wonderful aspects: a clever, creative plot, a cast of mostly lovable, oddball characters, and great humor, all wrapped up with a touch of whimsy. I had such a strong desire to pack up and move into the old Owens house—I could see it so clearly in my mind’s eye—and to get to know its inhabitants. And, having two younger sisters myself, I could truly appreciate the bond between Sally and Gillian. This is their coming-of-age story, one that ends with each sister finally finding happiness. I’ve reread this book several times, which is unusual for me, and I’ve come to think of it as an old friend.
A Gift of Magic by Lois Duncan
I first read this story as a preteen and it captivated me, so much so that I reread it as an adult and enjoyed it just as much! After all, who hasn’t wondered what it would be like to be able to read other people’s minds? This is a story about three children, each of whom is blessed with a special gift. I love the relationships between the siblings in this book, too, and I was constantly guessing about what would happen next. This is a suspenseful story with a heartwarming ending.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
This is my all-time favorite book. It was first published in 1943, and it provides a fascinating, in-depth look at a slice of American society in the early twentieth century. It is written with unflinching honesty, and many of the situations described are difficult to read emotionally, but the rewards of the story are just as great. Francie, the protagonist, is an incredible role model. This is her survival story, one with lessons that are still relevant today. What Francie achieves in the face of poverty and adversity is inspiring and exceptional.
A letter to readers from John Grisham about Sycamore Row.
When A Time to Kill was published in 1989 it sold a few copies around Memphis, Jackson, and a couple of other hot spots in Mississippi, but it was unnoticed by the rest of the world. As an eager rookie, I was dreaming of royalties, foreign rights, a movie deal, and perhaps a larger publishing contract. None of these things materialized, not in 1989 anyway. The book was ignored; my tiny publisher printed five thousand copies, and we couldn’t give them away. The Memphis newspaper trashed it and the Jackson paper refused to review it.
But it proved resilient. My second, third, and fourth books followed quickly, along with their movie adaptations, and somewhere in that frenzy A Time to Kill was discovered. One day in the summer of 1994 I caught myself gawking at the New York Times bestseller list—all four books were at the top, with A Time to Kill number one in mass market. By then, it had sold five million copies.
And the book has remained popular. Its own movie version was released in 1996, did well at the box office, and in all likelihood it’s somewhere on cable tonight. Today, after thirty books, A Time to Kill is still the bestselling book I’ve written. And it’s by far the favorite, at least according to those who get close enough to offer an opinion. Countless times I’ve heard, “Hey, I like your books, but the first one is the best.”
More often than not, this is followed up with a quick, “How about a sequel? Another story about Jake and Lucien and Harry Rex?” To which I usually respond, “I’m waiting on a story.”
And so I’ve waited. For over twenty years I’ve thought about Jake Brigance and the characters in his world, and the aftermath of the Hailey trial. I’ve wondered how Jake was doing in Clanton, a deeply divided town, with the Klan hot on his tail, his home destroyed by a firebomb, his friends carrying guns to protect him. How were Jake and Carla coping as they picked up the pieces and started over? Did the Hailey trial make him a star, a lawyer in demand? Or was he still struggling to pay the rent?
I’ve gone back briefly to Ford County in other books, but never one involving Jake. Harry Rex Vonner, one of my favorites, has made a few cameos here and there, but nothing of substance. Lucien Wilbanks has appeared occasionally, but only in passing.
When I finished my second book, The Firm, my plan was to return to Clanton for another story. Then, I would write another legal thriller. Back and forth, back and forth, I would carve out my turf on the literary landscape with two kinds of books—the legal thrillers and the Ford County novels. Surely, somewhere in there I could find my niche and sell some books. The sudden success of The Firm, though, changed things dramatically, and I felt the urgency to pursue the legal thrillers. And, after twenty of them, I still enjoy piecing together the plots and pursuing the issues.
But Jake has never been far from my creative thoughts. Two years ago, a novel began to take shape. Unlike A Time to Kill, a story inspired by real events, this one has no basis in truth. Now that Sycamore Row is finished, I’m not sure where the idea came from, at least not in fact. I suppose the inspiration comes from the characters because, in writing it, I often felt as though I was having dinner with old friends. It was a delight to catch up with them, to hear their voices again, and to remember how they were thirty years ago. I hope they haven’t changed much.
My wife, Renée, wasn’t too keen on a sequel and her reason was simple: When I began writing A Time to Kill in 1984, I was the hungry young lawyer looking for the big case. I was struggling at the office and wondering where the clients were. We were living the life of Jake and Carla in a small town in Mississippi, just getting by and trying to survive. Happy, ambitious, but not sure the law was our ticket to success. That was a long time ago, and Renée worried it would be difficult to recapture the authenticity of that writer’s voice. So much has changed. She was also worried about the possibility of a cool reception to a sequel. “They rarely work, you know?” She said more than once. “Fine,” I said, “we just won’t call it a sequel.”
And so we’re not. Renée read the first chapters of Sycamore Row and was soon on board. The story came together nicely and writing it became a pleasure. As always, it took about six months, not a long time in the writing business, but long enough. The last six weeks are usually tedious and tiring, and the deadline looms and I grow a little tired of my characters. Not so with Sycamore Row. Almost daily, I was tempted to, as we say, “chase a rabbit,” or, in other words, pursue some long- winded and colorful tale involving Harry Rex or Lucien or another character. I could have written a thousand pages, but at some point the story had to end.
So I saved some material for the next time out.
John Grisham Charlottesville, Virginia October 15, 2013
John Grisham takes you back to where it all began. One of the most popular novels of our time, A Time to Kill established John Grisham as the master of the legal thriller. Now we return to Ford County as Jake Brigance finds himself embroiled in a fiercely controversial trial that exposes a tortured history of racial tensionin Sycamore Row.
Questions for Discussion
1. How is the novel shaped by the place in which it’s set? How would the story be different if it were set elsewhere? In a big city? In the North?
2. How is the novel shaped by the era in which it’s set? How would the story be different if it occurred today? How would the existence of cell phones and the Internet change this story?
3. If Seth is of sound mind and not unduly influenced by anyone, why do you think he attempts to right his family’s wrongs in this manner—through a posthumous letter and a holographic will— knowing that it will provoke such intense conflict? Are his actions considerate of Lettie? Are they unfair to his family? Do they put Jake in an unnecessarily difficult position? In the same situation, what would you have done?
4. Do you think the verdict—all five parts of it—was correct? Do you think Judge Atlee’s modification of the verdict was fair?
5. Do you think Judge Atlee was a good judge? In the instances where he allowed legally questionable evidence to be presented, did he make the right choices?
6. On page 92, Lucien and Jake debate the differences between the Carl Lee Hailey trial and the upcoming Hubbard trial. Jake tells Lucien, “That was all about race. This is all about money.” Lucien replies, “Everything is about race in Mississippi, Jake, don’t ever forget that.” Who do you think is right? Are they both right?
7. How does the theme of forgiveness shape this novel?
8. Public opinion can play a significant role in influencing juries and, therefore, verdicts—but public opinion isn’t necessarily shaped by objective facts. How did gossip, exaggerations, rumors, and out- right lies (both printed and spoken) shape the trial outcome?
9. What role did memory play in the legal proceedings? For Lettie? For Ancil? For the jury?
10. What did you learn about the legal process in reading this novel? Did it change your perception of lawyers or America’s judicial system?
11. Who in this novel exhibits selflessness? Who exhibits selfishness? Are there characters who exhibit both? Who is the hero of this novel?
12. How responsible are we for the actions of our ancestors?
Have you ever wanted to sit down with bestselling author Laura Hillenbrand to chat with her about her writing, Unbroken, Louie, and more? Well, we got a chance to do that here at Random House Reader’s Circle, and we want to share everything with you! For even more of the additional bonus features check out the back of your paperback copy of Unbroken.
RANDOM HOUSE READER’S CIRCLE: Louie Zamperini is a larger-than-life figure. He enjoyed a measure of fame in his youth—both during his running career and after surviving the POW camps—but was relatively unknown in the second half of the twentieth century. How did you first learn about Louie? When did you realize there was a book in his story?
LAURA HILLENBRAND: My first book was about the Depression-era racehorse Seabiscuit. While working on it, I pored over 1930s newspapers. One day I was reading a 1938 clipping about the horse when I happened to turn the paper over and find a profile of a young running phenomenon named Louie Zamperini. I started reading. Louie had not yet gone to war, but his story was already so interesting that I jotted his name down in my Seabiscuit research notebook.
Later, I came across Louie’s name again, and this time I learned a little about his wartime odyssey. I was very intrigued, and when I finished writing Seabiscuit: An American Legend, I did some searching, found an address for Louie, and wrote him a letter. He wrote back, I called him, and I found myself in the most fascinating conversation of my life. He told me his story, and I was captivated.
So many elements of Louie’s saga were enthralling, but one in par- ticular hooked me. He told of having experienced almost unimaginable abuse at the hands of his captors, yet spoke without self-pity or bitterness. In fact, he was cheerful, speaking with perfect equanimity. When he finished his story, I had one question: How can you tell of being victimized by such monstrous men, yet not express rage? His response was simple: Because I forgave them.
It was this, more than anything, that hooked me. How could this man forgive the unforgivable? In setting out to write Louie’s biography, I set out to find the answer.
RHRC: You’ve written about two exceptional, unlikely running sensations of the first half of the twentieth century, weaving deeply moving, inspirational narratives around them. What, to you, is a good subject— what do you look for?
LH: In times of extremity, ordinary individuals must reach into the depths of themselves, and there they find the true content of their character. Some find emptiness, frailty, even dark impulses. But others find wondrous virtues—courage, resourcefulness, self-sacrifice, daring, ingenuity, the will to soldier on when will is all they have left. These are the virtues that turn history, and these are the virtues that enable individuals to prevail in the supreme trials of their lives. It is in times of superlative hardship that individuals live their epic adventures, stories that thrill, fascinate, inspire, and illuminate. Theirs are the stories I’m drawn to.
I also think the best subjects offer the opportunity to use a small story to tell a much larger one. One could approach Seabiscuit as simply a rags-to-riches racehorse who lived seventy-five years ago. By itself, it’s a marvelous tale. But in his remarkable life, and in the lives of his automobile magnate owner, his frontiersman trainer, and his former prizefighting jockey, lies the far larger story of America in the Great Depression. I gathered as much detail as I could about the intimate lives of my subjects, but also backed up to show their context, the era of tremendous upheaval in which they were living, and the way in which they embodied the spirit and struggle of that era.
Louie, like Seabiscuit, is just one individual. But his odyssey carried him into the greatest cataclysm in history, giving me the chance to tell a tale vastly broader in scope than that of any single athlete or soldier, one encompassing Hitler’s Olympics, the Pacific war, and the experience of American military airmen, Japanese POW camp guards, prisoners of war, and veterans. You can’t truly understand an individual unless you understand the world he or she inhabits, and in illustrating that individual’s world, you will, hopefully, capture history in the accessible, tactile, authentic way in which the times were actually experienced. In Unbroken as in Seabiscuit, I tried to paint portraits not just of individuals, but of their times.
To continue reading this interview, check out the RHRC materials in the back of your paperback copy of Unbroken!