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Discussion Questions: Vanessa and Her Sister

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

Vanessa and her Sister_ParmarWhat if Virginia Woolf’s sister had kept a diary? For fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank comes a spellbinding new story of the inseparable bond between Virginia and her sister, the gifted painter Vanessa Bell, and the real-life betrayal that threatened to destroy their family. Hailed by The New York Times Book Review as “an uncanny success” and based on meticulous research, this stunning novel illuminates a little-known episode in the celebrated sisters’ glittering bohemian youth among the legendary Bloomsbury Group.

1.      When the novel opens, the Stephen siblings’ father has died and they have moved from their childhood home in Kensington to bohemian Bloomsbury. Why do you think Vanessa chose to uproot her siblings and move to such a radically different part of town? What sort of change was she trying to bring about for her family?

2.      Vanessa tells us that her family values words and books over painting and visual arts. How do you think growing up in such a family affected Vanessa’s view of herself as an artist? Would you rather be a writer or a painter?

3.      Vanessa always protected and supported Virginia, and excused much of her difficult and unsocial behavior. Do you think Vanessa’s tolerance gave Virginia permission to behave in the way that she did?

4.      What is your opinion of Virginia and Vanessa’s relationship? Before Vanessa’s betrayal, did you find them to be legitimate friends, or do you feel something was missing between them even before Vanessa married Clive? How did Vanessa’s view of her sister change after she married?

5.      Vanessa turned down several proposals from Clive, but decided to accept him after Thoby died. Do you feel that if Thoby had lived, Vanessa might have chosen a different path? Or that Virginia might not have behaved as she did? Do you think Vanessa and Clive were well suited to each other?

6.      Virginia felt contempt for Clive and thought him an unsuitable husband for her sister. Why did she seek to “find a place” in Vanessa’s marriage? What do you think Virginia hoped to achieve?

7.      We often think of the early twentieth century as being a time of almost Edwardian restraint, yet the Bloomsbury Group was open about both homosexual and heterosexual love. Do you think they were utterly unique? Do you believe such openness was actually more common at the time than we traditionally believe?

8.      Members of the Bloomsbury Group not only challenged the norms of the time but also challenged one another during their numerous discussions about art, writing, philosophy, economics, and even love. Vanessa at times felt she was out of her depth, and marveled at Virginia’s brilliance. Do you agree with her assessment of herself? How difficult do you feel it would have been to be a part of such a talented and intelligent circle?

9.      At one point Vanessa reflects, “If Virginia were not my sister, we would be a pedestrian cliché. Instead, we are a bohemian nightmare.” How do you feel the ideals of the Bloomsbury Group influenced Vanessa’s reaction to not only Clive’s affair with Virginia but also his choice to resume physical relations with Mrs. Raven Hill? If you had been in her shoes, do you believe you would have responded differently?

10.   The story opens with a letter from Virginia to Vanessa stating, “What happened cannot break us. It is impossible. Someday you will love me and forgive me. Someday we will begin again.” How did this letter color your reading of the rest of the novel? Did you expect Vanessa to forgive Virginia at any point? Do you think it is fair to say that Vanessa still loved her sister, despite the fact that she ultimately decided she could not forgive her? Do you agree with Vanessa’s decision?

11.   Vanessa and Her Sister is told largely through excerpts from Vanessa’s diary and her letters, with snippets of correspondence between her family and friends. What did you think of this narrative style? Was there any one person whose perspective you wished to see more often? How objective did you feel Vanessa’s portrayal of the story was?

12.   Of the two sisters, Virginia is undoubtedly the more famous. Were you surprised by anything you learned about her in this novel? Did it challenge any previous ideas you had about her?

13.   At the end of the novel, the author gives a brief description of what became of each member of the Bloomsbury Group. Was there anything in there you found unexpected? Disappointing? Particularly satisfying?

A Conversation Between Sarah Blake and Priya Parmar

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

Vanessa and her Sister_ParmarWhat if Virginia Woolf’s sister had kept a diary? For fans of The Paris Wifeand Loving Frank comes a spellbinding new story of the inseparable bond between Virginia and her sister, the gifted painter Vanessa Bell, and the real-life betrayal that threatened to destroy their family. Hailed by The New York Times Book Review as “an uncanny success” and based on meticulous research, this stunning novel illuminates a little-known episode in the celebrated sisters’ glittering bohemian youth among the legendary Bloomsbury Group.

Sarah Blake is the author of Grange House and  The Postmistress (winner of South Africa’s Boeke Prize and a New York Times bestseller).

Sarah Blake: I first heard the famously dismissive (and apocryphal?) admonition from Virginia Woolf to her sister, Vanessa Bell—-You will have the babies, and I will write the books—-when I was in college and beginning to think of myself as a writer, and I’ll never forget the firestorm of debate and despair those words caused. Did a woman writer have to choose? And if we didn’t, did that make us less of a writer (or an artist)? Vanessa and Her Sister is a powerful answer to that question, but I’d love to know what drew you, as a writer and as a woman, to the two Stephen sisters and their story to begin with?

Priya Parmar: That remark might be apocryphal, but that specific, resentful sentiment pervaded Virginia Stephen’s correspondence in the months after Vanessa Bell gave birth to her first son, Julian. Virginia was desperately afraid of being left behind as Vanessa moved into her new life as wife and mother. Virginia’s letters are salted with spikey, barbed jabs aimed at her happily married sister.

Virginia Woolf was not an easy person—-gifted, charismatic, quixotic, charming, and brimming with creative genius—-but never easy. She believed in possession and in relentlessly coming first in the affections of those she loved. So what would it have felt like to be the person she loved best in the world?

That question kept surfacing as I tumbled deeper and deeper into the research. Vanessa Bell must have experienced a web of contradictory and shifting feelings. She must have felt trapped, exhilarated, exhausted, frustrated, proud, and protective when she dealt with her brilliant but selfish sister. And while Virginia adored Vanessa, she deliberately set out to destroy her sister’s marriage. As a novelist, I found this nexus of conflicting emotion irresistible. There is so much juicy humanity in the contradictions.

SB: And why did you choose to write the story from Vanessa’s point of view?

PP: Vanessa was the shadowy linchpin of the Bloomsbury Group. She was at the emotional, romantic, creative, social, and artistic center of the circle, and yet in many ways she left surprisingly light historical footprints. Many of her early paintings from this period were destroyed in the London Blitz, she did not keep a diary, and aside from a brilliant selection edited by Regina Marler, her letters are largely unpublished. So I began with the thought that this was a wonderful, underexplored vantage point for a novel. And then I spent some time with her.

I look for a historical figure with a magnetic core, someone who can draw the narrative to her and drive it forward with equal force. Vanessa astonished me with her humanity, her boldly lived life, and her canny self–deprecating voice. The story curved to fit her and then surged forward at her encouragement. Her archival letters are immediate and modern and Vanessa emerges as a woman who is flawed, magnificent, and relatable. As soon as I read them, I could not imagine telling the story from another point of view.

SB: One of the reasons I love writing historical fiction is the chance it gives me to take up the language of other times like a cloak I can wrap myself in and then walk around. There is the heady thrill of ventriloquism, and what you have achieved here is breathtaking. One can’t help but feel this must be just how Vanessa Bell thought and spoke and saw. When did you know you had Vanessa’s voice in your head? At what point did you start to become fluent in her? And how did that shape the course of the novel?

PP: I am so pleased you feel the voice rings true! “Fluent in her” is a lovely phrase. That is just how it felt. Vanessa’s voice did not creep up on me as Lytton’s and Virginia’s did. It arrived all at once and knocked on the door with a suitcase in hand. Choosing a historical figure is a dicey thing. The research is an invitation. I cook the dinner, set the table and light the candles in the hope that if I immerse myself fully into the historical documentation, her voice will arrive.

In 1905, Clive Bell proposed to Vanessa Stephen. She wrote a letter refusing him. But she did not write in the accepted, expected vocabulary of an Edwardian woman of her class. She told the truth. The whole truth. She liked him but not enough to marry him, but perhaps if he left the country for a bit she would like him more? She began the letter at home but finished it in pencil at the dentist’s office. With that letter, her voice galloped in. And the voice is everything. For me, the character flows from the voice and the narrative flows from the character. Once her voice moved in, the story began to crackle with life.

SB: What was your relationship to Virginia Woolf before beginning this book? Did you find that it changed over the course of writing it?

PP: I went to Mount Holyoke College—-all women, Seven Sisters, very big on Virginia Woolf. And then I majored in English. So I was steeped in the brilliance of Woolf’s novels from a relatively young age. I had roving Woolf favorites. Sometimes To the Lighthouse, sometimes Orlando. Always Mrs. Dalloway.

I knew that Virginia was difficult but felt that her personality took a backseat to her overwhelming genius. My mother has copies of all of the letters and diaries and I had dipped in and out of them over the years but never read them straight through. Once I began to research in earnest, I read the diaries, novels, essays, and letters concurrently in chronological order and my perception shifted. I began to separate the Virginia Woolf who was able to write with such enormous self–awareness and perception from the Woolf who was able to callously belittle a beloved friend or enter into an emotional affair with her sister’s husband.

My Virginia Woolf is very much a fictional creation. Her roots grip the historical facts of this early part of her life but her character is imagined. As I was writing, I found myself furious with Virginia. Hopelessly partisan, I sympathized with Vanessa unreservedly. It was only after I finished the novel that the balance restored itself and the genius of Woolf as a writer stepped back to the foreground.

SB: The novel begins with a letter from Virginia Woolf hoping that someday Vanessa will forgive her, and ends with the letter that is Vanessa’s answer. In between lies the story of these sisters as it unfolds over seven years. Vanessa’s last letter expresses one sister’s triumph at having pulled herself clear of the other, and into her own life. I couldn’t help but recall the end of To the Lighthouse when Lily Briscoe, the painter—-who has survived Mrs. Ramsay and all the intervening years—-puts down her brush and thinks to herself, triumphantly—-There. I have had my vision. Can you talk a little about how your book is haunted by Virginia Woolf’s novels, and which ones in particular?

PP: It is interesting. Most of the references were unintentional. I did purposefully include a few elements from the novels such as opening with a party to call up Mrs. Dalloway (Clarissa Dalloway is a character thought to be based upon Vanessa Bell) and tailoring aspects of Thoby’s character to suggest Jacob Flanders from Jacob’s Room. But since my novel is set in the years before Virginia published her first book, I tried my best to limit the Woolf references.

But my efforts failed. Virginia drew heavily upon her childhood and family in her writing, and I was stitching my narrative to her same -family history. One by one, her novels came marching obliquely in and echoed through the hallways of this story, pulled along by their historical origins. Lily Briscoe, Rosamund Merridew, Katharine Hilbery, -Godrevy Lighthouse, Clarissa Dalloway. I love the organic, grassroots way they found their way here.

SB: Vanessa writes to Lytton Strachey at the height of the affair between Clive and Virginia, “I think in color, in paint and pen and ink and shape. It is safer, and there are fewer lies.” Did you find that your writing, or your thinking about your writing, shifted because you were thinking about your scenes as a painter would?

PP: I cannot paint. Not even a little bit. So it was difficult for me to think as a painter would. I had no contextual foothold and had to rely even more heavily on historical sources to understand Vanessa’s particular artistic experience of the world. Here, I was lucky. While Vanessa kept silent on many subjects, she wrote frequently and expansively about her painting, exchanging letters with Roger Fry, Margery Snowdon, Duncan Grant, and Clive Bell among others.

I also spoke to several artists and art historians to better understand the emotionally freighted journey a painting makes from inspiration to studio to gallery to new owner. Vanessa’s artistic voice began to ring true when I realized how profoundly isolated she was growing up. In a family of writers, her medium was visual. No one spoke her language and that told me so much.

SB: Over the course of reading Vanessa and Her Sister, I found myself falling deeper and deeper under the thrall of Vanessa’s diary, to the point at which you could easily have told me that this was a lost diary, something just discovered—-it rang so true. What made you want to write the novel as a diary interspersed by letters? What were the constraints and freedoms that choice gave you? Are there any other diaries that have particularly inspired you?

PP: I have always been fascinated by diaries. From Tsarina Alexandra’s poignant last days in 1918 to Samuel Pepys’s rowdy love affairs in 1660 to Cecil Beaton’s cutting comments about his friends in the mid–twentieth century, diaries have a “cannot look away even though you know you should” quality to them. There is a backstage thrill. We are reading something that was not meant for us. Something that the author did not edit and shape in the way a writer does when a work is destined for public consumption. Instead it is raw–edged, unfinished, and so very personal.

As for the format of the novel, it did not feel as though I had a choice. The narrative arrived in this shape and refused to budge. Perhaps it was because I had spent years reading diaries and letters from the period, but when I tried the third person, it came across as forced and awkward and the characters packed up and went home. From the start, this format felt natural. The saddle fit the horse. I had been warned about the dangers and limitations of a first–person narrative, but because other voices were able to weave in and out with letters and postcards and telegrams, the form felt open and airy and never restrictive. Instead it felt endowed with huge built–in narrative tension. The author of a diary does not know what will happen next week or next month or how it will all end, but we do. So the format was rich with possibility.

SB: In her essay “Women and Fiction,” Woolf writes: Often nothing tangible remains of a woman’s day. The food that has been cooked is eaten; the children that have been nursed have gone out into the world. Where does the accent fall? What is the salient point for the novelist to seize upon? I thought of this as I read your book and wondered what were the moments while you were doing your research—-the salient points—-that you knew were pointing you in the direction of your novel? Where did you hear the accent fall?

PP: “Women and Fiction” is such a brilliant essay. It is interesting that Woolf writes these lines but she herself led a life where she pursued none of these activities. Her accents all fell in other places.

As I was carving the narrative from the research, there were several moments that stepped forward and declared themselves to be seminal and crucial. Surprisingly, they were not the moments anchoring the central betrayal of Vanessa’s life. Instead, they were the defining landmarks along her personal, emotional trajectory. A family’s understanding of who you are can be a binding, limiting thing. The moment when Vanessa peels away these long unquestioned beliefs, sheds that understanding of herself and leaps into the current of her own life, is for me the bone–deep engine of the narrative.

SB: This novel holds so many riches—-bringing to life Vanessa Bell, letting us eavesdrop on the Bloomsbury Group, a deeply satisfying portrait of an artist becoming herself—-but in some ways, the richest vein of all is the story, rarely told, of the relationship between artists who are sisters. Little has been written about the vital mix of competition and support (where, for instance, is the novel Anne and Her Sisters, depicting the Brontës?), and I wonder if you could talk a little about sisters and that bond and how it informed the writing of this novel?

PP: My own experience of having a sister has been unequivocally happy. But I know that I am lucky and that is not always the case. Affection, rivalry, competition, warmth, support, beauty, charisma, interest, similarity, and talent are all ingredients that mix together to form unique and sometimes difficult bonds, but the effect seems to always be one of particular intensity.

At the start of the research process, I began asking women a single question. I asked friends and strangers and women sitting next to me on planes and buses and women I met at dinner parties and in line at the DMV. “Do you have a sister?” If she answered yes, I would explain my novel, apologize in advance, and then ask that if her sister and her husband had an affair, which would be the greater betrayal? I asked this question again and again over the course of four years and the answer was always the same. The sister’s betrayal was greater. There is a magical alchemy in a sister relationship.

SB: What was the most surprising thing you learned about the members of the Bloomsbury Group over the course of writing this novel? What did you learn in researching, but then further, what did you learn in writing them, in inhabiting their voices?

PP: I was constantly surprised by how hard they worked to make their lives match their ideals. I had always had the impression that their bohemianism was clear and effortless, but I found that was not the case. It was an ongoing choice. A decision to follow an inner directive and live by their deepest convictions, and I do not think it was always easy. Conflicting, untidy, unruly emotions were tricky to navigate.

They all fervently believed in the importance of personal relationships and felt that friendship should be preserved at all cost, but sometimes the cost was immense. For a heartbroken Lytton Strachey to stay close to Duncan Grant and Maynard Keynes as they entered into a romantic affair was a bold and pricey decision. For Leonard Woolf to understand and accept that his dearest friend Lytton had accidentally proposed to Virginia, and she had accepted, must have been terrifically uncomfortable. For Vanessa Bell to create an affectionate and respectful lifelong co–parenting friendship with an unfaithful Clive Bell must not have been easy or straightforward. And it must have taken huge strength for Vanessa to shape a loving if not a trusting relationship with Virginia.

Each character and storyline held surprise as they slid out of their neat chronological confines. The fiction blurred the history as my novel and its characters became more and more real. These people lived courageously and they accepted the sometimes painful consequences of their choices with extraordinary humanity and grace.

Discussion Questions: The Scent of Secrets by Jane Thynne

Monday, September 21st, 2015

The Scent of Secrets_ThynneSet in Europe, in 1938, during the tense run-up to war, and perfect for fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd, Robert Harris, and Susan Elia MacNeal, this gripping historical novel features the half-British, half-German actress (and wholly covert spy) Clara Vine, who finds herself enmeshed in a dangerous game of subterfuge.

Take a deeper dive into the world of Clara Vine with these discussion questions…

1.   Who surprised you the most in the novel?

2.   Women played a crucial role in Hitler’s vision for the future of Germany. Discuss the role of women in German society in the 1930s. How does Hitler want the position of women to change?

3.   There are several examples of women who are even more fervently in favor of the Nazi cause than their spouses; did that surprise you? Why or why not? Discuss the relationships between the high–ranking Nazi officials and their wives.

4.   What did you think of Rosa’s decision to forge her nephew’s official medical papers? Were you surprised by her decision? Why or why not?

5.   What did you think of Eva Braun? What about her relationship with Hitler? Was she as silly as she sometimes seemed to be, or do you think she understood more about politics than she let on?

6.   Discuss the importance of the Nazi youth clubs and the mother schools in implementing the Nazi philosophy.

7.   Like most Berliners, Clara grows suspicious of everyone—-including her new neighbor, who turns out to be an innocent schoolteacher. Anyone might be a spy, even young children on their Sunday collection rounds. What means of recourse are there for normal citizens who do not support the Nazi regime?

8.   There seem to be a lot of inconsistencies in the personal, political, and moral philosophies of Hitler and his entourage. Hitler detests makeup yet loves actresses and the cinema. Goebbels champions family values yet is a serial philanderer. Rosa observes that party leaders seem to want to keep men and women separate, like flour and sugar, while at the same time encouraging higher birth rates and more marriage. Can you think of any other examples? How do you rationalize these hypocrisies? How do they?

9.   What surprised you most about Hitler?

10.  Compare and contrast the different Nazi wives in the novel.

11. What would your signature scent be?

A Conversation Between Christina Baker Kline and Amanda Eyre Ward

Friday, September 18th, 2015

The Same Sky_Ward_No TargetChristina Baker Kline chats with Amanda Eyre Ward about The Same Sky, Ward’s  beautiful and heartrending novel about motherhood, resilience, and faith—a ripped-from-the-headlines story of two families on both sides of the American border.

Christina Baker Kline is a novelist, nonfiction writer, and editor. She is the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling Orphan Train, a novel about an unlikely friendship between a seventeen–year–old Penobscot Indian foster child and a ninety–one–year–old Irish American widow who was one of several hundred thousand orphans to be transported from crowded East Coast cities to foster homes in the Midwest during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Christina’s other novels include Bird in Hand, The Way Life Should Be, Desire Lines, and Sweet Water.

Amanda Eyre Ward is the critically acclaimed author of five novels, including the bestseller How to Be Lost. She has spent the last year visiting shelters in Texas and California, meeting immigrant children and hearing their stories. This novel is inspired by them.

Christina Baker Kline: I read The Same Sky six months ago and still carry it around in my head. Your writing is vivid and immediate; you tell a complex story in such an accessible way. The reason I think it’s so memorable is that you build scenes with vivid specific details, use humor as a valve, and write about your characters with compassion and depth. They are fully human. Tell me—-how did you pull that off?

Amanda Eyre Ward: I know that some writers start with a plot or setting, but for me, everything begins with my characters. I see them in my imagination, and follow them wherever they want to take me. (I have learned from experience that trying to force them to go where I want them to is a futile and wasted effort.)

I spend a lot of time taking care of my children and not getting words on the page, so I try to use this time to gather details about my characters: If I’m grocery shopping, I ask myself, What would Alice buy for dinner? If I’m driving to a birthday party, I think, Which street might lead to Evian’s house?

I’m a huge reader, and if I’m invested in a character, I won’t put down the book. So when I wanted to write about unaccompanied minors and their journey to the U.S. border, I knew that Carla’s character was key. Luckily, her voice came to me. Carla’s voice mirrors many of the unaccompanied minors I met: feisty, funny, brave, hopeful.

CBK: How did you come to be interested in unaccompanied minors?

AEW: I had been working on my fifth novel for two and a half years when my agent told me it was terrible. For months, I stumbled around in a haze of misery. During the hours I’d previously spent working, I read everything I could get my hands on.

I read Enrique’s Journey, the nonfiction account of a boy traveling from Honduras to reach his mother in America, after reading a profile of Sonia Nazario in the alumni magazine of Williams College, which we both attended. The book grabbed me immediately—-Nazario’s research was dangerous and important, and I wanted to read more about children like Enrique. I searched the Web for stories, transfixed by kids my own children’s ages who were walking away from everything they knew to try to reach their mothers and fathers in America. As I tucked him in at night, I tried to visualize my own ten–year–old son bringing my six–year–old (and one–year–old!) on such a dangerous trek. It was impossible to imagine.

I met Alexia Rodriguez, whose organization, Southwest Key, runs many of the shelters at the border. Alexia brought me to Brownsville, Texas, where she introduced me to unaccompanied minors and I spoke to them about writing.

I also talked to the children about why they had left, what horrors they had faced along the way, and what they hoped to find. One girl told me about watching her friend being attacked by an alligator and being forced by her -coyote to leave the ailing girl behind. I met a five–year–old whose parents had left him when he was an infant. They lived in New Jersey, and he was due to be reunited with them in the morning. I heard about boat trips, plane trips, and how hard it is to sleep on The Beast.

And I met children who had been assaulted. Some of the girls were pregnant—-their eyes dark and flat, their hair clean from the shelter showers. They wore pink sweatsuits and told me stories I will never forget.

That night, I lay awake, unable to sleep. It was excruciating to think about the kids just a few miles away. They were so brave and so alone. They were filled with a faith I envied, the belief that God was with them and that they would find peace (and be loved) in America. I tried to think of what to do to help them but came up with nothing.

In the middle of the night, I heard a voice, the first sentence of a new novel: My mother left when I was five years old. And though I never thought I’d hear the voice of a young Honduran girl in my imagination, I listened. In the morning, the entire arc of the novel was clear to me. I could get one fictional girl to her mother, and that was a small something.

CBK: Since Carla’s voice and story arc came to you so clearly, why did you decide to incorporate Alice into her story?

AEW: During my research, I watched some videos of Father Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, who runs a shelter for migrants in Ixtepec, Mexico. (Carla and Junior come to this shelter in the book.) Father Solalinde Guerra said something that resonated deeply with me: these children have the spiritual capital that Americans need. I was very struck by this thought, and found it to be true. The children I met at the border, who literally have no material goods, have a sense of faith and hope—-a belief that they are and will be taken care of—-that I am often lacking.

I wanted to create a character who has the trappings of the American Dream—-a successful business, a house, even a kind and supportive husband—-but who yearns for something else, something deeper. She needs the spiritual capital that Carla possesses in abundance.

The main characters in your novel Orphan Train come from very different backgrounds as well. In your mind, how do you see their stories as fitting together?

CBK: Similar to what you were saying about how Carla’s character came to you, I find that when you write novels you go on instinct much of the time. As I began writing about Molly, a seventeen–year–old Penobscot Indian foster child, believe it or not I didn’t immediately notice parallels to Vivian, a wealthy ninety–one–year–old widow. But as I wrote my way into the narrative I could see that in addition to some biographical parallels—-both characters have dead fathers and institutionalized mothers; both were passed from home to home and encountered prejudice because of cultural stereotypes; both held onto talismanic keepsakes from family members—-they are psychologically -similar. For both of them, change has been a defining principle; from a young age, they had to learn to adapt, to inhabit new identities. They’ve spent much of their lives minimizing risk, avoiding complicated entanglements, and keeping silent about the past. It’s not until Vivian—-in answer to Molly’s pointed questions—-begins to face the truth about what happened long ago that both of them have the courage to make changes in their lives.

AEW: As I read Orphan Train, I was struck with the thought that unaccompanied minors have a great deal in common with the children you write about. Do you think?

CBK: I do. There are so many parallels in these stories of the orphan train riders and the border kids. One thing that I’ve learned in my research is that every immigrant group that comes to this country faces some kind of hazing process. When people are assimilated, they tend to forget that their ancestors (or even near relatives) were once poor, dispossessed, and alien. These stories force us to face that fact.

AEW: I finished reading Orphan Train, closed the book, and continued to think about the strength those children found in the face of such profound disappointment. The unaccompanied minors I met were also incredibly courageous. . . . I hope that readers can listen to Carla’s story and be inspired.

A Conversation with David Liss

Thursday, September 17th, 2015

The Day of Atonement_LissRandom House Reader’s Circle had the chance to ask David Liss, author of The Day of Atonement some questions about his research, history, and the differences between writing historical fiction and fantasy.

Random House Reader’s Circle: What was your inspiration for the novel?

David Liss: I first learned about the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 when I took my first eighteenth–century literature class in grad school, and it’s one of those things that always stuck in my imagination. Though it’s not well known by Americans today, it was a consciousness–changing event for eighteenth–century European intellectuals, who couldn’t quite comprehend how one of the world’s great cities could simply cease to exist. Usually when I’m finishing a book, I know exactly what I want to work on next. But after The Twelfth Enchantment, I didn’t have a clear idea, so I decided that maybe it was time to finally look into the earthquake. I began doing a little bit of light research on eighteenth–century Portugal in general to see if there was a story that would draw me in, and I became instantly fascinated with the political corruption, religious injustice, and economic ineptitude of the period. From there, I simply kept doing research until the story began to take shape. Originally I planned to write a sort of post–disaster novel in which I set up events for the earthquake fairly quickly, and then explored the aftermath in the bulk of the book. As I began writing the book, however, it became clear to me that it was Lisbon before the earthquake, not after, that really fascinated me.

RHRC: Sebastiao is an exceptional character in terms of skill, determination, and focus. What made you want to tell his story?

DL: Once I was fairly well steeped in the research for this book, I knew I wanted to write a revenge story, which seemed like a natural narrative for such an unjust society. Sebastiao took shape as I tried to figure out what sort of character would work best for this world. I liked the idea of someone who had been utterly broken by the injustice he’d suffered, so I began working from there. Revenge is always a losing proposition, of course, since it invariably leaves the seeker feeling empty afterward, so I wanted to write about someone who was looking for something more than justice. Sebastiao, troubled as he is, understands that vengeance is a process for him, not necessarily justice against those who have done wrong.

RHRC: The Day of Atonement is a return to historical fiction, after The Twelfth Enchantment, a novel with magical and supernatural elements. Do you find there are major differences between writing historical fiction and writing fantasy? Which do you prefer?

DL: When I write fantasy, it tends to be of the historical variety, which is usually very research–heavy, so there’s really not that much difference. I’m still working within certain limitations of history and culture—-as opposed to the sort of fantasy that takes place in a totally imagined world. I’m not sure if I prefer writing either one. Each has its own pleasures for me. That said, the two genres, in my view, are closely related. When you write about
periods of time before film or photography or sound recording, you have to make a lot of guesses about what life was like for your characters. They are often educated guesses, but you are still engaging in world–building and constructing an imaginative world for your reader to inhabit. If the physics and biology of that world are the same as ours, it’s historical fiction; if not, it’s fantasy.

RHRC: What were some of the specific challenges you faced in writing or researching this novel?

DL: The Day of Atonement presented some very specific challenges because Lisbon, as it existed before the earthquake, is almost entirely gone. A great deal of the work I did for this book involved trying to understand what life was like in destroyed Lisbon for people from all the various social strata. The English of this period were highly literate (by contemporary standards) and fascinated with themselves, so eighteenth–century London is extremely easy to research. Lisbon, by contrast, is less well recorded, so there was a lot of archival and detective work involved.

RHRC: What was your research process like?

DL: I tend to work from the broad to the particular. When I’m researching a culture I know almost nothing about, as I did with this book, I first look for the very general surveys of the material—-popular histories, or even books for younger readers. I want to understand the basics before I get into specifics, because otherwise I don’t really know what I’m looking at. Once I begin to have a sense of what interests me, I’ll read more scholarly works, and studies of specific people or events, or of cultural movements. From there I go to primary sources: letters, diaries, contemporary travel guides, and whatever else is available. Finally, when I have a near–final version of the book, I visit the place I’m writing about. I find if I go too early in the process, I’m not sufficiently focused; if I go later, I know exactly what I need to look for or at.

RHRC: Benjamin Weaver, the protagonist of several of your other novels, makes an appearance. What made you decide to bring him back? Did it feel strange to be writing about him from a different character’s perspective?

DL: There were certain similarities in the skill sets of the two characters, even though their personalities are very different, so I began to think it might be fun to have Weaver as a minor character in this book. Readers often contact me asking if I plan to write any more novels featuring Benjamin Weaver, and right now I have no intention of doing so, but it was interesting to think about him as an older, more settled figure. I’ve never had any interest in writing an entire novel about an older version of the character, so having him appear as a minor character here allowed me to imagine his life progressing without having to work a full narrative around it.

RHRC: The novel is set during a particularly tumultuous time in politics and religion. Do you see any lessons for the modern world in the realities of that setting?

DL: I tend to believe that every time is a tumultuous time for politics and religion—-which often serve, in my view, as an excuse for, rather than a cause of, aggression and animosity. I’m not sure there is any particularly insightful lesson to take away. There are always going to be those who will misuse and abuse power if given the chance. There are pretty universal occurrences, but I do find it interesting to see how they manifested in the past. Looking at these events through the lens of history can help to defamiliarize, and therefore shed light on, events in our own time.

The Scent of Secrets: Jane Thynne’s Inspiration

Thursday, September 17th, 2015

The Scent of Secrets_Thynne

Set in Europe, in 1938, during the tense run-up to war, and perfect for fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd, Robert Harris, and Susan Elia MacNeal, this gripping historical novel features the half-British, half-German actress (and wholly covert spy) Clara Vine, who finds herself enmeshed in a dangerous game of subterfuge.

Jane Thynne talks about what inspired her to write The Scent of Secrets…

A few streets away from Harrods in London’s Knightsbridge stands the anonymous, shiny black door of a private members’ club. From the outside, you would never know that the club is for agents who served in resistance organizations during WWII and beyond. But when you enter and climb the stairs you pass numerous photographs of female spies who served—-and mostly died—-in the field. It is deeply inspiring.

When I began writing about a British agent in Germany in the 1930s it was with the bravery of these women in mind. I had always wanted to write a novel set in Berlin. It was a city that went in a matter of months from being the most exciting place in Europe—-the center of sexual and cultural freedom, of Expressionist film and Bauhaus art—-to the most frightening and repressive. The idea of placing a female British agent not just in Berlin but at the heart of the Nazi regime itself was irresistible.

Having been a journalist, both in TV and newspapers, for most of my career, I was keen on documentary accuracy, so even though I was writing fiction, I spent weeks tramping Berlin’s streets, exploring the prewar buildings that remained and picturing those that had been destroyed. It was a strange process in which my imaginary Berlin—-the 1930s version—-existed like a palimpsest alongside the hastily erected and often ugly postwar buildings. Parts of Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry still stand, and the Babelsberg film studio remains in its entirety, as does Goering’s Air Ministry, but we can no longer see Hitler’s Reich Chancellery, and the bunker where Hitler and Eva Braun died is buried beneath a parking lot. Yet it wasn’t just the official buildings that mattered. Deciding where an actress like Clara Vine might live was just as important. In the end I chose Winterfeldtstrasse, a lovely tree–lined street in Schöneberg just a block away from where Christopher Isherwood wrote the novel that was filmed as Cabaret.

The streets of Berlin were the easy bit. The chief challenge of my research was that I was writing about women. There are barely enough libraries in the world to contain the books written about the male side of the Third Reich—-the leaders, the politics, the campaigns—-but the experience of German women seems to have gone largely unrecorded. What was it like to be in the League of German Girls? To attend a Bride School or a weekly Mother’s Course? And in the upper echelons of society, how did it feel to be married to a man who became a monster? Were the Nazi leaders’ wives complicit, or did they try to dissuade their men from their crimes?

The answers were not easy to find. No one has wanted to translate the memoirs of women like Lina Heydrich into English, so I brushed up on my German and spent time buried in the London Library, a beautiful Georgian building in St. James’s Square. And the information I found provided for me a whole new perspective on the private life of the Third Reich. The domestic details of the women’s lives seem so fragile and recognizably ordinary beside the war machine that their husbands were preparing. While I was researching the life of Eva Braun I read a few lines about her love of perfume, how she adored Worth’s Je Reviens and liked to create her own concoctions. This was, of course, just another irony of life in Nazi Germany—-cosmetics, especially French ones, were frowned on for ordinary women. Yet that detail, like a snatch of perfume itself, lit an idea in my mind. I thought about the power of scent to evoke feelings—-not just childhood memories, but unsettling emotions and fear too—-and I decided that perfume should be a theme at the heart of my story.

Like the door of that secret agents’ club in London, the wartime lives of German women are easy to pass by. But you only understand how a totalitarian society works when you see it on the human scale. To me, glimpsing the personal lives of the senior men through their relationships with their wives and girlfriends only makes their activities more disturbing.

—-Jane Thynne


Discussion Questions: The Day of Atonement

Monday, September 14th, 2015

The Day of Atonement_LissThe bestselling author of such novels as A Conspiracy of Paper and The Whiskey Rebels continues his masterly run of “atmospheric” (The Washington Post), “page-turning” (The Baltimore Sun), “tremendously smart” (Newsweek) historical thrillers. In The Day of Atonement, David Liss blends meticulous period detail with crackling adventure in the tale of one man’s quest for justice—and retribution.

1.  Two big themes of the novel are vengeance and mercy. Do you think the two are mutually exclusive? Can you be both vengeful and merciful at the same time?

2.  Discuss the meaning of the title The Day of Atonement.

3.  The novel ends before we know how Roberta responds to Sebastiao. What do you imagine she says to him? What would you say to him in her place?

4.  Do you see Sebastiao’s concept of justice evolve at all throughout the novel? If so, how, and what do you think prompts the change?

5.  Comparing his own deception to Roberta Carver’s, Sebastiao thinks, “The Carvers’ crime against Settewell had been unforgiveable. It was not a slightly unscrupulous take on usual trade—-it was theft, pure and simple. What I intended was, of course, much the same, but my scheme had the virtue of being retaliatory” (page 209). Do you agree with the idea that his actions are somehow more justifiable because they were preceded first by another crime? Is revenge ever justifiable?

6.  Which of the characters in this novel do you most identify with, and why?

7.  At the start of Chapter 1, Sebastiao declares, “I am not a kind person. . . . If I am a monster, however, I am monster made, not born” (page 19). What does this opening suggest about the nature of goodness and evil? After reading the novel, do you agree or disagree with his declaration?

8.  Compare and contrast Roberta and Gabriela. What do you think the two women represent to Sebastiao, and how do you see that change over the course of the novel?

9.  At the end of his final confrontation with Azinheiro, Sebastiao is faced with a very important choice. Were you surprised by the choice he made? In his shoes, do you think you would have made the same one?

10. How do you think your opinion of the characters might change if this were a book of nonfiction, and not a novel?

Discussion Questions: The Same Sky

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

The Same Sky_Ward_No TargetFrom the acclaimed author of How to Be Lost—also a Target Book Club pick—comes a beautiful and heartrending novel about motherhood, resilience, and faith—a ripped-from-the-headlines story of two families on both sides of the American border.

1. At the beginning of the novel we learn that Carla’s mother left for Texas when Carla was just five years old. How does that experience shape Carla, for better or for worse?

2. Carla and Alice come from very different backgrounds, but their lives are ultimately connected. What qualities or personality traits do they share?

3. Carla’s journey to Texas is life-threatening and heartbreaking, but she never gives up. Where do you think she derives her strength and faith from?

4. Jake becomes very angry about the way Alice handles the situation with Evian. Do you think his anger is justified? Why or why not?

5. What do you think Alice learns from her relationship with Evian? How does it contribute to her broader outlook?

6. Through the different experiences of Alice, Jane, and Carla, the author explores three unique attitudes toward motherhood. What resonated with you about the experiences of all three characters as they reflected on the idea of motherhood and its role in their lives?

7. At various points in the novel, Alice and Jake disagree about whether or not they should continue trying to adopt. What would you do if your spouse told you that he or she couldn’t take the heartbreak of any more failed adoptions?

8. Despite her best efforts to protect him, Carla is ultimately left with no choice about what to do with Junior. Do you agree with her decision? Can you imagine what you might have done in her shoes?

9. After Alice and Jane lose their mother to ovarian cancer, and considering Alice’s own battle with breast cancer, Alice can’t understand why Jane still refuses to find out if she’s at risk as well. Jane maintains that she’d rather live freely with risk than miss out on certain parts of life. Which sister do you agree with? Why?

10. Throughout the novel the narrative alternates between Carla’s perspective and Alice’s. Was there ever a point when you wished you could find out what was going on with the other character? When did this happen and why do you think you felt such a strong pull?

11. Were you surprised by how things turned out for Carla and Alice? Why or why not?

12. The issue of undocumented immigration is clearly essential to the plot of The Same Sky, and is a hugely polarizing part of the American experience today, but it doesn’t overpower the other themes in the novel. How do you think the author achieved that balance?

13. In addition to undocumented immigration, The Same Sky deals with issues of love, motherhood, personal health, rape, adoption, economic inequality, and many more. Of all the themes addressed in the novel (whether explicitly or implicitly), which was the most thought provoking for you? Why?

Chasing Down the Amazons with Anne Fortier

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

The Lost SisterhoodReaders often ask me to pinpoint the very moment I decided to write a book about the Amazons. The truth is, there was nothing sudden about it; those fiery warrior women have roamed my imagination for as long as I can remember. Not only did my mother make sure I was well versed in Greek myths from the earliest age, but Myrina’s and Diana’s parallel journeys of discovery have deep roots in my own lifelong experiences as a scholar and traveler.

When I was fourteen years old, my mother took me on a holiday trip to Tunisia—-the northernmost country in Africa. One week was all she could afford, and had she been alone, she would probably have preferred to spend it in Italy. But Mom knew I was fascinated by the Sahara Desert, and she was, as always, prepared to leave her own comfort zone to nourish my interests. I still remember her telling the travel guide that I was writing a novel set in the desert, and I certainly remember the bemused disbelief in the guide’s eyes. Little did he know that, indeed, three decades later, many of my impressions from that amazing time in Tunisia would eventually find their way into The Lost Sisterhood.

I can still recall the mélange of exotic smells that struck me the moment we stepped off the plane in the tourist hub of Monastir in central Tunisia, on the Mediterranean coast—-the jasmine and wild spices, the sizzling hot asphalt, the musky cologne . . . all completely different from the rather sedate scent palette of the Scandinavian climate in which I had grown up. And I still fondly remember the friends I made that week: shy Habib, who taught me to write my name in Arabic letters (and to always check my shoes for scorpions); fun–loving Mohsen, who took me on a breathless horseback ride through lemon orchards; and of course, above all, the nameless, unsmiling sheikh who pulled me up on his horse and galloped off with me . . . because Mom paid him two dinar for the privilege. Thus our motto “what doesn’t kill you makes for a great novel” was born.

Four years later, my friend Line and I went backpacking in Greece in order to finally explore all those ancient excavation sites we had learned about in high school. Even at eighteen we were already aspiring classicists, and the character of Rebecca in The Lost Sisterhood is very much modeled on Line. It was on this trip, standing on the Acropolis in Athens for the first time, that it occurred to me what an extraordinary thing it was for the ancient Greeks to have allowed the Amazons—-filthy, uncivilized warrior women that they supposedly were—-a place on the Parthenon frieze. And frankly, as Line and I stood there in all our grimy splendor, feeling rather hardened and nomadic among the color–coded group tours, I’m sure we both felt a growing kinship with our Amazon cousins once removed.

During our month in Greece and on Crete, Line and I had many close calls that still make us shiver. As we keep saying to each other, we’re lucky to be alive! One night, after zigzagging all over Piraeus and taking multiple buses in wrong directions—-Line was already a pro at ancient Greek, but unfortunately, bus tables hadn’t been part of the school curriculum—-we noticed we were being followed. It was not merely in our imagination; wherever we went, the Man went, too. He was not particularly big or threatening to look at, but what was so eerie about him was his complete lack of shame in following us: he didn’t even try to hide the fact.

As chance would have it, we were headed up a lonely hillside that night, in search of a restaurant rumored to have genuine Greek live music and folk dancing. As we walked up the narrow path in near darkness, we were trying to figure out what to do. What was the Man’s plan? Was he going to jump us? Or did he want to see where we were spending the night before calling his friends? I still remember the ominous sound of his footsteps behind us in the darkness; I had never been so afraid in my life.

In the end, Line and I decided that we had to confront this lowlife, and so we stopped, picked up some sticks, and waited. Our fear was turning into anger, and I remember visualizing precisely how I was going to hit him if it came to that. And so we waited. And listened. But there were no more footsteps. Nothing.

We never saw the Man again. I still believe it was our decision to turn and fight that drove him away. Somehow he sensed that his prey had turned into Amazons.

A few years after my big trip with Line I was back in Turkey, once again poking around in ancient ruins and dreaming about the past. This was when I almost literally stumbled across the name “Myrina” for the first time. As it turns out, the modern Turkish city we know as Izmir was once called Smyrna—-named, some theorize, after the Amazon Myrina. And lo and behold, a few hundred kilometers farther north is the site of ancient Troy where, according to Homer, a local hill was named after this mysterious Myrina, too. While it is true that many place names in the Aegean region bear semblance to legendary Amazons, the unusual thing about Myrina is that she belongs to a different strain of the Amazon legend—-a strain normally associated with North Africa and with a long–lost civilization that was, over time, swallowed up by the Sahara Desert.

Partly because of my own love of North Africa, and partly because we know so little about her, Myrina was always the Amazon who intrigued me the most. According to one ancient historian, Myrina was a warrior queen who commanded a near–invincible army and made innumerable conquests not only in North Africa but also throughout the Aegean region. While it might have been interesting to fictionalize this particular account, I do find that endless tales of conquest and war tend to get monotonous after a while. And so instead, I chose to focus on Myrina’s link with the Greek Amazons we know so well from classical literature and to use her as an eyewitness to a bygone world that has inspired poets and artists—-and the rest of us—-for centuries.

As a consequence of this perennial fascination with Antiquity, hardly a year goes by without a new Hollywood blockbuster about the Trojan War, sun–bronzed gladiators, or related swashbuckling demi-gods. The cinematography has improved over time, and so have the special effects, and yet the stories hardly appear to have evolved at all. This is not necessarily a criticism, because I’ll be the first one to confess that I do love traditional tales of heroism, but it does -puzzle me that so few have dared to break the old Homeric mold—-especially now, with modern science and scholarship constantly expanding our knowledge of the past.

The figure of the mounted, bow–slinging Amazon is a good example of a stereotype that hasn’t changed much since Antiquity. After living with them for so long, I felt these extraordinary women deserved a renaissance that didn’t just apply another coat of veneer to the existing myth, but rather stripped it down to the frame, took it apart, and reassembled it all over again in a new, more thought–provoking form. So too with the Trojan War, which has never ceased to haunt us, perhaps precisely because of all the still–unanswered questions, contradictions, and downright improbabilities of the -classic version of the legend. Rather than simply regurgitating the Homer-Hollywood archetype, I felt it was time to give voice to some of the experts who have long challenged the established opinion about what actually happened at Troy.

The problem of espousing controversial ideas, of course, is that readers get bewildered and wonder what is true and what is fiction. In fact, this confusion applies to historical novels as a whole. To what extent, we wonder, is the author working on the basis of trusted sources? Is the book a sincere attempt at re-creating the past, or is the story merely inspired by past events? Such questions are important, and the answers are rarely short and simple.

In the case of The Lost Sisterhood, a good part of the novel is set in a prehistoric era, which by definition rules out the existence of truly trustworthy written sources. Our knowledge of the period is largely based on archaeological finds and literary hearsay. In other words, we know more about the journey of a chipped clay dish than we know about the life of our warlike Queen Myrina—-worse, we can’t even prove she ever existed.

To make up for the fact that Myrina’s world is spun from myth and scientific guesswork, I injected the modern–day story with as much theory as I thought it could carry. Whenever Diana and Rebecca discuss the past, their thoughts reflect the opinions of scholars currently working in the field—-some more controversial than others. And hopefully The Lost Sisterhood will inspire readers to delve into other books about the great mysteries of Antiquity and—-as I have done—-walk the ruins, breathe in the past, and feel the connection to our heroic ancestors, whether real or imagined.

Discussion Questions: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

Hausfrau_EssbaumJill Alexander Essbaum is the author of Hausfrau, the striking debut novel of marriage, fidelity, sex, and morality, featuring a fascinating heroine who struggles to live a life with meaning.

1. That Anna. So—-really—-what’s her deal? Her thoughts loop on a script of immutable passivity, but is that her whole story? From the onset we know she is a flawed protagonist, a damaged character, a woman who is “nothing but a series of poor choices executed poorly.” Taking into account Anna’s personal history, her psychic and spiritual makeup, and those aforementioned poor choices, is there any part of this tragedy that somehow isn’t her fault? What should she be held accountable for? Of what, if anything, are you willing to absolve her?

2. Bruno proposes to Anna with the words “I think you would make a good wife for me.” What, in your opinion, would make him think that? They’ve been together for over a decade. By book’s end it’s clear that Bruno has either known about or suspected Anna’s infidelities the entire time. Why would he tolerate them? Why would he tolerate her? Is this a sign of his weakness or his strength? What does he “get” out of this marriage?

3. Mary, in her decency, stands in direct opposition to the self–centered narcissism of the majority of Anna’s actions. Simply put, Mary seems to be everything that Anna should be but isn’t. But the book suggests that Mary’s two–shoes aren’t altogether goody, so to speak. In three separate instances, she “spills” herself in front of Anna: when she drops her purse and blurts out a more–Anna–than–Mary expletive, when she drops her purse and the erotic novel (and the wistful truth that she regrets not exploring her sexuality) tumbles out, and, finally, when she admits to the bullying and setting the fire. In these ways, Mary has more in common with Anna than Anna is open to recognizing. Do you think Mary can see past Anna’s façade? Do you think she understands Anna on a fundamental level? If not, then do you think she would ever be able to? What do you think will happen to Mary after the book ends?

4. Anna’s lack of morality is almost shocking. What do you think is her gravest mistake? Is there any point during the course of the narrative where she could have stopped the progression of events?

5. Anna rarely tells Doktor Messerli the whole truth. Why, then, do you think she continues the analysis?

6. Anna has never learned to speak German, and yet she exhibits an unmistakable talent for language: she plays with words, turns puns, thinks in entendre—-though rarely does she speak these things aloud. Is it shyness that prevents her from showing this side of herself? Fear? What would it look like if Anna could tap into her “voice”? What would it change?

7. Of all the children, Charles is the most dear to Anna. Victor is too much like Bruno for Anna to fully trust. But as the sole memento of the relationship with Stephen, one might assume that Polly Jean would hold the spot closest to Anna’s heart. Discuss Anna’s relationship with her children. She won’t win mother of the year in anyone’s contest—-but is there any way in which she can be commended? Is there anything she does as a mother that is correct? Good? Nurturing?

8. Anna confesses she majored in home economics in college. Couple this with the perfect memory of sewing with her mother, and the seed of Anna’s present psychology begins to form. As her station as a wife and a mother starts to fail her (or rather, she, them), we are able to understand that somewhere in Anna’s fundamental self she was raised to be these things. Why does she cling to this fantasy if it doesn’t seem to suit her?

9. At the end of chapter 6, Anna thinks, “I wish I’d never met the man.” Which man do you suppose she means?

10. Doktor Messerli warns Anna that “consciousness doesn’t come with an automatic ethic,” and Anna’s choices seem to bear this out. Taking into consideration Doktor Messerli’s explanation of the Shadow, her story of the Teufelsbrücke, and the final events of the book, is it possible to argue that, ethics aside, Anna has come into complete consciousness?

11. Archie says to Anna that a man can smell a woman’s sadness. In the same vein, Anna talks herself through the morning after the physical confrontation with Bruno with a “You had this coming” speech to herself (“I provoked this. . . . I brought this to myself. . . .”). By this reasoning, Anna is an active participant in her own downfall. But Anna claims to be almost entirely passive. Do you consider Anna to be more passive or more active? How does this complicate your understanding of Anna’s psychology?

12. In terms of the structure of the novel, the analytic sessions with Doktor Messerli serve to explicate, illuminate, underscore, and complicate the plot of the book and any conclusion that Anna believes she’s arrived at. Are there any places in the book where this is particularly meaningful to you?

13. There’s an intriguing symmetry to the way that the grammar of the German language—-the tenses, moods, conjugations, false cognates, infinitives, et cetera—-lays itself out in a pattern that easily overlays the poignant heartbreak of the novel. And yet, one of the themes of Hausfrau is language’s ultimate inadequacy. Is that tension resolvable? If so, how? Is this something you have encountered in your own life?

14. The book depends upon the coolness of the Swiss, the impenetrable nature of the landscape, and the solitude of nighttime in order to fully call forth Anna’s deep despair and alienation. Could this book take place in another setting? Anna’s everyday environs—-the hill, the bench, the trains, the Coop—-become characters in their own right. Are there other functions the novel’s setting serves?

15. Hausfrau is in some sense a study in female sexuality. What might the author be suggesting about the sexual appetites of a woman at midlife? What might the author be suggesting about a woman’s emotional needs?

16. An entirely speculative question: What do you think will happen to Bruno and Victor and Polly Jean? Can you imagine their lives post–Anna?

Shoe
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