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A Reader’s Guide: NO CHILD OF MINE by Susan Lewis

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

Lewis_No Child of MineDear Reader,
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that this wasn’t always an easy book to write. I’m sure at times you didn’t find it easy to read either. Little Ottilie’s story touched me deeply in its creation, perhaps more than any other book I’ve written.

Thank you for staying with her and Alex. Abandoning them, which would have been the less challenging option, would have felt as though we’d abandoned all the children who experience the same sort of tragedy in their lives. None of us would want to do that, though it’s true we’d often like to bury our heads in the sand and pretend it’s not happening.

My decision to tackle this difficult subject came about because of how frequently we see social workers being lambasted in the news. Sometimes this will be deserved, but more often than not we don’t get to hear the whole story. Therefore we have no idea how bureaucracy, inflexible rules and regulations, and manipulative adults might have made it all but impossible for them to act even when their instincts are telling them they must. I didn’t meet a single social worker during my research who didn’t care passionately about the children in their caseload; Alex herself is based on one of them (though I must stress that Ottilie’s case is purely fictional).

Indeed, because this is fiction I have been able to make some good finally emerge from the horror of Alex and Ottilie’s situation and to show that love can turn up in the most unexpected of ways.

It is, of course, a huge pity that this doesn’t happen for far too many children, but I felt it was extremely important to try to leave you, the reader, with a sense of hope in your hearts.
Now that I have said that, it might interest and perhaps please you to hear that there is a sequel, already written, entitled Don’t Let Me Go. Obviously I won’t give anything away here, but I hope you’ll agree that there needed to be more.

Once again, I thank you for choosing to read one of my books, especially this one. It matters a great deal to me what you think of it, so if you would like to be in touch please don’t hesitate. You can reach me through the contact link on my website or on the official Susan Lewis Facebook page.

A Conversation with Susan Lewis

Random House Reader’s Circle: What made you want to become a writer?

Susan Lewis: It’s something I instinctively felt would happen one day, though I didn’t do much about it until I began working in TV drama. Editing scripts, pulling together story lines, and dreaming up characters and their backgrounds was something I enjoyed so much that when an agent suggested I turn one of my projects into a book, I decided to give it a go. That book was never published, but the bug had bitten and the rest, I guess, is history.

RHRC: Describe your routine for writing and where you like to write, including whether you have any little quirks or funny habits when you are writing.

SL: I have a study at home that overlooks a beautiful spread of lower Cotswold countryside, and I aim to be there by ten each morning, through until six or seven in the evening. For a long time I wrote seven days a week, taking a break only when I was so exhausted I couldn’t do any more. Now I pace myself a little better by doing only five or six days, but even that is pretty grueling. I don’t have any quirks particularly, but I do have a very bad but thoroughly enjoyable habit of drinking a glass or two of wine when I read back over what I’ve written during the day.

RHRC: What themes are you interested in when you’re writing?

SL: I’m always interested in the strange or terrible things fate inflicts on innocent people and how courageously (or not) they strive to overcome them.

RHRC: Where do you get your inspiration from?

SL: The most obvious source of inspiration is life itself. Added to that there are certain authors I find very inspirational in the way they write, such as Lionel Shriver, Jodi Picoult, Anita Shreve, Susan Howatch, and Irène Némirovsky, whose book Suite Française played a very big part in my own book A French Affair.

RHRC: How do you manage to get inside the heads of your characters in order to portray them truthfully?

SL: It’s all done through imagination, I guess I can’t think that there would be any other way.

RHRC: Do you base your characters on real people? And if not, where does the inspiration come from?

SL: Very occasionally they’re based on people I meet, but as a real character is so highly complex, it would only ever be one or two aspects of them. I guess you could say that personality traits are perhaps more inspiring than actual characters.

RHRC: What’s the most extreme thing you’ve ever done to research your book?

SL: I once allowed myself to be locked up in a Filipino jail when researching Last Resort that was pretty scary, and it didn’t smell too good either!

RHRC: What aspect of writing do you enjoy most?

SL: I enjoy it all, especially when exciting and pivotal things happen that I hadn’t seen coming!

RHRC: What’s the best thing about being an author?

SL: For me it would definitely be doing the second draft, when all the really hard work is done and the smoothing out is under way. After that comes a lovely freeing time when I hold on to the book before giving it to my editor this is a period when there is no pressure at all, or anxiety about whether or not she is going to like it. That begins the moment I send it from my computer to hers.

RHRC: What advice would you give aspiring writers?

SL: Probably that you have to be serious about writing to make it work, not simply think “I’m going to write a bestseller” or “I’d write a book if I only had time.” It takes a huge amount of dedication and belief in yourself; if you have that, then I think the best advice I could give is pay great attention to your characters and who they are, and don’t forget to listen to them. It’s uncanny how often they’ll help out when you find yourself stuck.

RHRC: What is your favorite book of all time and why?

SL: There are many books I could list here, but I’m going to settle for Suite Française, because it’s the only book I’ve ever finished reading and then gone straight back to the beginning to read it again.

RHRC: If you could be a character in a book, or live in the world of a book, who or where would you be?

SL: I wouldn’t mind being one of Georgette Heyer’s heroines back in Georgian times, but as they didn’t have much in the way of anesthetic then, perhaps I’d rather be Claudine in my own book Darkest Longings.

Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Alex and Ottilie have a powerful connection. What draws Alex to Ottilie in the first place? And what draws Ottilie to Alex?
2. What role do you think Mrs. Wade’s childhood had on her life as an adult? What about Alex’s? What role do you think childhood experiences (both positive and negative) have in our future lives?
3. What did you think of the structure of alternating chapters between Alex’s life and Ottilie’s life?
4. Anna, Alex’s mother, has not contacted her in more than twenty years in order to protect her, which is hard for Alex to understand. Do you think Anna abandoned Alex, or was she right to avoid contacting her until her ex-husband’s death?
5. Alex keeps her breakup with Jason a secret from her friends and family for as long as possible. Why do you think that is?
6. When Alex finds out who her true father is, her whole outlook on her past changes. What role did this play in Alex’s self-image?
7. Alex has no patience for her supervisor’s obsession with rules and paperwork, and Wendy thinks Alex considers herself to be above everyone else. Do you think either Alex or Wendy is entirely in the right here?
8. Of all the children she sees in so many difficult situations, why do you think Alex chose to save Ottilie? What pushed her over the line in this case?
9. What would you have done if you were in Alex’s position?
10. Were you surprised at the ending? What did you expect?
11. There are many themes in this novel—abuse, trauma, resilience, motherhood and family bonds, among others. Which one affected you the most? Which do you think is the most important?
12. Did the novel spark any ideas for changes in the child protection and foster care system? Has it changed your opinion about it?

A Letter to Readers from Rachel Joyce, author of THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY

Friday, April 5th, 2013

Joyce_Harold Fry Dear Reader,

I have spoken before about how this story began as a radio play that I wrote for my father when he was dying of cancer, but I have had far less opportunity to describe its publication as a novel – and the people I have met since then.

In writing about Harold and Maureen with their terrible unspoken secret, and all those people that Harold meets as he walks to save a friend’s life, I was trying to celebrate the ordinary people. (I think the shiny ones get quite enough attention.) I wanted to write about the small acts of kindness, the conversations where words do not even tip the surface of feeling, the courage and bravery of everyday things. Readers have written to me about their experiences of travel, of friendship, of marriage, of loss, and tragedy too. They have told me about book group discussions and the people with whom they have shared the story – lost friends, parents, children. I met a lovely man who told me he would not read my book because it had no trains in it, and a woman who said nothing, who simply held my hand and cried. I had no idea – as I sat in my shed, surrounded by pieces of paper, with a head full of words – that the book could make such a journey.

So this is what I have discovered – and it has been a gift in itself – that books live over and over again in different people’s minds. That I might mean one thing as I write, but a reader’s experiences will take it somewhere else. That is like a conversation, I think. It is a true connecting up.

I hope you enjoy Harold’s story.

With my best wishes,

Rachel Joyce

For more information about Harold and his journey join Rachel Joyce on Facebook or visit her website.

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Enter for your chance to win ENCHANTMENTS by Kathryn Harrison

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Harrison_Enchantments_TP “A sumptuous, atmospheric account of the last days of the Romanovs from the perspective of Rasputin’s daughter, [told] with the sensuous, transporting prose that is Kathryn Harrison’s trademark.”—Jennifer Egan

St. Petersburg, 1917. After Rasputin’s body is pulled from the icy waters of the Neva River, his eighteen-year-old daughter, Masha, is sent to live at the imperial palace with Tsar Nikolay and his family. Desperately hoping that Masha has inherited Rasputin’s healing powers, Tsarina Alexandra asks her to tend to her son, the headstrong prince Alyosha, who suffers from hemophilia. Soon after Masha arrives at the palace, the tsar is forced to abdicate, and the Bolsheviks place the royal family under house arrest. As Russia descends into civil war, Masha and Alyosha find solace in each other’s company. To escape the confinement of the palace, and to distract the prince from the pain she cannot heal, Masha tells him stories—some embellished and others entirely imagined—about Nikolay and Alexandra’s courtship, Rasputin’s exploits, and their wild and wonderful country, now on the brink of an irrevocable transformation. In the worlds of their imagination, the weak become strong, legend becomes fact, and a future that will never come to pass feels close at hand.

“Part love story, part history, this novel is a tour de force [told] in language that soars and sears.”—More

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FALLEN by Karin Slaughter: A Reader Group Guide

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

Karin Slaughter Cover
“An amazing effort . . . This is [Karin] Slaughter’s best book to date, and readers unfamiliar with her work will find this one a perfect place to begin.”—Associated Press

There’s no police training stronger than a cop’s instinct. Faith Mitchell’s mother isn’t answering her phone. Her front door is open. There’s a bloodstain above the knob. Everything Faith learned in the academy goes out the window when she charges into her mother’s house, gun drawn. She sees a man dead in the laundry room, a hostage situation in the bedroom. What she doesn’t see is her mother. When the hostage situation turns deadly, Faith is left with too many questions. She’ll need the help of her partner, Will Trent, and trauma doctor Sara Linton to get some answers. But Faith isn’t just a cop anymore, she’s a witness—and a suspect. To find her mother, Faith will have to cross the thin blue line and bring the truth to light—or bury it forever.

Fallen by Karin Slaughter
Reader’s Group Questions

1.The story line in this book has an ever-present theme of the relationships between parents and children, especially between a mother and her child. What kind of relationship did you have with your parents as a child? As an adult? Are there any parallels between your own parental relationships and those of the characters?

2.Will is described as having “strangely dysfunctional relationships with all of the women in his life” (120). Do you agree with this assessment? By the end of the book, does it seem as if he is improving his relationships with women? How so?

3.There are many different women in this book with different roles in law enforcement. How are their positions similar? How are they different? Do you think it was easier for the younger women to establish their careers in what is still a male dominated line of work?

4.Do you think Will’s assumption of Evelyn’s involvement in her team’s corruption affected the way he pursued her kidnapping? Did Amanda’s withholding of information from Will affect the progression of the case?

5.When speaking on the subject of women and minorities trying to make careers in the police force in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Amanda says, “Every single day was a struggle to do right when everything around you was wrong” (119). What do you think she means by this? Do you think her perception of the situation was accurate?

6.When visiting Boyd Spivey in prison, Will reflects on the living situations of the prisoners and how they are de-humanized. He thinks of their living conditions as “heartbreaking”. When he considers the crimes that landed them in prison, however, he seems to change his mind. Do you agree with Will’s sentiments? Should you feel sympathy for the prisoners at all? Or do they deserve the treatment they receive?

7.Before Faith goes off to be questioned by the Atlanta police, Amanda hugs her and says, “You’ve got two minutes to pull yourself together. If these men see you cry, all you will be to them for the rest of your career is a useless woman” (139). Is this judgment accurate in your mind? If Faith were a man in the same situation, would crying elicit the same negative connotation?

8.“Mystery is good for a relationship,” Will says to Sara, in a joking manner (186). Do you think there is some truth to that statement? How could this “mystery” in both familial and romantic relationships be seen as a theme in the book?

9. A pregnant fourteen year-old is not common these days, though it’s not an usual occurrence, either. Back in the early 90s, when Jeremy was born, Faith and her family endured ostracization and alienation. In most areas of the United States today, that would not be the case. Have things changed for the better, or are they worse?

10. When reflecting on the secret that led to her kidnapping and torture, Evelyn thinks the kidnappers would not believe her because, “The truth was too disappointing. Too common” (205). What is your opinion of the true motivation behind the crime revealed at the end of the book? Do you think Evelyn is correct in thinking it disappointing and common?

11. The prisoners in the book have remarkable means of communicating both within the prison and with the outside world. Even prisoners like Boyd Spivey and Roger Ling, who should technically have no access to any information outside of their cells, are usually better informed than the GBI investigators visiting them. What, if anything, can and should be done to inhibit outside communication?

12. This novel is told through the viewpoints of several different characters. How does this technique aid the narrative? How does each point of view give the reader insight into the case?

THE DEVIL IN SILVER by Victor LaValle: A Reader’s Guide

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

LaValle_Devil in SilverNew Hyde Hospital’s psychiatric ward has a new resident. It also has a very, very old one.

Pepper is a rambunctious big man, minor-league troublemaker, working-class hero (in his own mind), and, suddenly, the surprised inmate of a budget-strapped mental institution in Queens, New York. He’s not mentally ill, but that doesn’t seem to matter. He is accused of a crime he can’t quite square with his memory. In the darkness of his room on his first night, he’s visited by a terrifying creature with the body of an old man and the head of a bison who nearly kills him before being hustled away by the hospital staff. It’s no delusion: The other patients confirm that a hungry devil roams the hallways when the sun goes down. Pepper rallies three other inmates in a plot to fight back: Dorry, an octogenarian schizophrenic who’s been on the ward for decades and knows all its secrets; Coffee, an African immigrant with severe OCD, who tries desperately to send alarms to the outside world; and Loochie, a bipolar teenage girl who acts as the group’s enforcer. Battling the pill-pushing staff, one another, and their own minds, they try to kill the monster that’s stalking them. But can the Devil die?

The Devil in Silver brilliantly brings together the compelling themes that spark all of Victor LaValle’s radiant fiction: faith, race, class, madness, and our relationship with the unseen and the uncanny. More than that, it’s a thrillingly suspenseful work of literary horror about friendship, love, and the courage to slay our own demons.

Follow Victor LaValle on Twitter

Discussion Questions for The Devil in Silver:

1. Pepper arrives at New Hyde Hospital in handcuffs, led inside by three cops. What are your first impressions of Pepper because of this? What assumptions do you make about him? How long does it take for those initial impressions to change?

2. New Hyde’s psychiatric unit, Northwest, is located in a public hospital in Queens. In what ways does the author overturn or undermine your ideas of what a psychiatric unit will look like and how it will be run? In what ways does he confirm your ideas?

3. During his intake meeting Pepper learns that he’ll be held for observation for seventy-two hours. He reacts badly to this. How do you imagine you might react upon learning that you were trapped within this system? What might you do differently? Do you think it would help?

4. Dorry explains that she makes a point of greeting all newly admitted patients when they arrive at New Hyde. Why does Dorry do this? How would you imagine you would react to meeting Dorry when you first arrived? Why do you think Pepper and Dorry bond in the way they soon do?

5. Though Pepper protests that he isn’t mentally ill he’s still forced to take medication which has a severe effect on him. How did the introduction of the medications affect Pepper’s behavior? Does our society seem too quick to prescribe pharmaceutical drugs these days? What affect might they be having on all of us?

6. Within days Pepper has met most of the other patients. Coffee, his roommate, seems particularly scared of something on the unit. What did you think of Coffee’s fears before Pepper was attacked and then afterward? What did you think of Coffee’s mission to reach someone, anyone, in the outside world who could help? Was he foolish or hopeful?

7. Do the members of the staff—Dr. Anand, Miss Chris, Scotch Tape, Josephine, and the other nurses and orderlies—seem to be trying to harm the patients? Is the mistreatment of the patients intentional? If not, how might the staff be seen as “suffering” inside of New Hyde, too?

8. How did your understanding of the “Devil in Silver” change as the novel progressed? By the end of the novel did you have any sympathy for “the Devil?”

9. Pepper and Sue enjoy a brief but intense love affair while inside New Hyde. How does Pepper’s time with Sue change his character? Did he help Sue, in the end?

10. Why is Vincent Van Gogh referenced so often in this book? How did Van Gogh’s story come to seem important to Pepper? Why was it relevant to the novel as a whole?

11. Whose death affected you most in this novel? Why?

12. Does Pepper ever get out of New Hyde Hospital? Where do you imagine Loochie is now?

Watch the book trailer:

Discussion Questions for TRUE BELIEVERS by Kurt Andersen

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

Andersen_True Believers“Kurt Andersen’s best yet. The man is operating on some far-out level that bends time and space to his will. True Believers hits all the right notes and reads like a goddamn dream.” — Gary Shteyngart

In True Believers, Kurt Andersen—the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed author of Heyday and Turn of the Century—delivers his most powerful and moving novel yet. Dazzling in its wit and effervescent insight, this kaleidoscopic tour de force of cultural observation and seductive storytelling alternates between the present and the 1960s—and indelibly captures the enduring impact of that time on the ways we live now.

Discussion Questions and Topics for Discussion

1.  The epigraph of True Believers contains the following lines from Wordsworth: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven,” which encapsulate the sentiments of empowerment and enthusiasm driving idealistic supporters at the dawn of the French Revolution. How does Karen’s own Vietnam-era experience — one distinguished by a widespread dissatisfaction and social unrest among youth — mirror the emotions fueling these words?

2.  The blurring of fiction and reality is a major theme throughout the novel, both in terms of how the characters define themselves and how they interpret the world around them. Karen makes an interesting point that the emergence of modern entertainment and its obsession with turning events of the recent past into salable media commodities created a phenomenon in which “the people who lived through the events were tricked into believing they had experienced the fictions and docudramas.” In what ways has this manipulation and glamorization of the facts influenced the characters and period that Andersen explores? How does this continue to be an issue today?

3.  Alex, Chuck and Karen’s infatuation with the works of Ian Fleming led them to believe that the extreme and outrageous happenings in the world of government and at large meant that life was imitating — and even anticipating — art. Do you think this made it easier for them to justify their own extreme behaviors, perhaps by creating a dissociation between the severity of their actions and a world they began to see as phantasmagorical?


Discussion Questions for Charles Frazier’s NIGHTWOODS

Friday, June 8th, 2012

Frazier_Nightwoods TP


1. Luce’s strategy for dealing with her troubled past is to withdraw from her community, her emotions, and in some sense from life itself. Does Luce find this an effective coping mechanism for dealing with trauma? How does it help her, and how does it hurt her? In our digital world, is it still possible for someone to withdraw in this way?

2. Luce feels obligated to care for her sister’s children even though she admits she is not a maternal person and does not love the children. Discuss this choice. How is Luce’s sense of obligation informed by her relationship with her own mother and father?

3. Think about Luce’s connection to her elder friends. What is it about Luce that draws her toward Maddie, old Stubblefield, and her grade school teachers?

4. Think about the scene in which Luce tells Lit about the rape. Is he only being insensitive and rude, or is there a part of him that is actually trying to protect Luce from more pain and disruption, albeit in an insensitive way?

5. Luce and Stubblefield are alike in some ways, and in others they are very different. Why do you think they are attracted to each other? Discuss which character changes the most over the course of the novel.

6. Discuss the children, and their eccentric and violent behavior. Are they misunderstood? Mentally or emotionally disturbed? How do they function as a narrative engine? In today’s environment, a caretaker of these children would probably look for some kind of diagnosis. Apart from abuse, think about what might drive the kids’ behavior that may have been misunderstood in the early 1960s. What are the challenges of raising children without the medical or psychiatric support we take for granted today?

7. Bud and Lit manage to form an unlikely bond. What is Bud looking for in Lit? And what is Lit looking for in Bud? What draws the two men apart, and ultimately leads to Lit’s death?

8. Blood is a prominent symbol in Nightwoods. How does the metaphor of blood affect your interpretation of the story, and how does it shape Bud’s confused worldview?

9. The beautifully rendered Appalachian landscape plays a central role in Nightwoods. Is the landscape merely a setting for the story? Or is it something more? A symbol? A kind of character? And what do you think the giant pit in the woods represents?

10. In the end, Luce opens up to Stubblefield and accepts that he intends to be a permanent fixture in her life. The children also seem to have accepted him. What do you think of this unlikely, cobbled-together family? What does it say about what makes a family? Will they be successful in making each other whole again?

11. What do you think happened to Bud? Does he continue to represent a threat to Luce, Stubblefield, and the kids?

Find Charles Frazier on Facebook

The Girl in the Blue Beret by Bobbie Ann Mason: A Reader’s Guide

Friday, May 18th, 2012

Mason_Girl in the Blue BeretBehind the Book

My father-in-law was a pilot. During World War II, he was shot down in a B-17 over Belgium. With the help of the French Resistance, he made his way through Occupied France and back to his base in England. Ordinary citizens hid him in their homes, fed him, disguised him, and sheltered him from the Germans. Many families willingly hid Allied aviators, knowing the risks: They would have been shot or sent to a concentration camp if they were dis- covered by the Germans.

In 1987 the town in Belgium honored the crew by erecting a memorial at the crash site, where one of the ten crew members died. The surviving crew was invited for three days of festivities, including a ?yover by the Belgian Air Force. More than three thousand Allied airmen were rescued during the war, and an extraordinarily deep bond between them and their European helpers endures even now.

My father-in-law, Barney Rawlings, spent a couple of months hiding out in France in 1944, frantically memorizing a few French words to pass himself off as a Frenchman, but his ordeal had not inspired in me any ?ction until I started taking a French class. Suddenly, the language was transporting me back in time and across the ocean, as I tried to imagine a tall, out-of-place American struggling to say Bonjour. Barney had a vague memory of a girl who had escorted him in Paris in 1944. He remembered that her signal was something blue—a scarf, maybe, or a beret. The notion of a girl in a blue beret seized me, and I was off.
I had my title, but I didn’t know what my story would be. I had to go to France to imagine the country in wartime. What would I have done in such circumstances of fear, deprivation, and uncertainty? What if my pilot character returns decades later to search for the people who had helped him escape?

Writing a novel about World War II and the French Resistance was a challenge both sobering and thrilling. I read many riveting escape-and-evade accounts of airmen and of the Resistance networks organized to hide them and then send them on grueling treks across the Pyrenees to safety. But it was the people I met in France and Belgium who made the period come alive for me. They had lived it.

In Belgium, I was entertained lavishly by the people who had honored the B-17 crew with the memorial, including by some of the locals who had witnessed the crash landing. I was overwhelmed by their generosity. They welcomed me with an extravagant three- cheek kiss, but one ninety-year-old man, Fernand Fontesse, who had been in the Resistance and had been a POW, planted his kiss squarely on my lips.

In a small town north of Paris I met Jean Hallade. He had been only ?fteen when Second Lieutenant Rawlings was hidden in a nearby house. Jean took a picture of Barney in a French beret, a photo to be used for the fake ID card he would need as he traveled through France over the next few months, disguised as a French cabinetmaker.

And in Paris I became friends with lovely, indomitable Michèle Agniel, who had been a girl guide in the Resistance. Her family aided ?fty Allied aviators, including Barney Rawlings. She takes her scrapbooks from the war years to schools to show children what once happened. “This happened here,” she says. “Here is a ration card. This is a swastika.” She pauses. “Never again,” she says. The characters in The Girl in the Blue Beret are not portraits of actual people, but the situations were inspired by very real individuals whom I regard as heroes.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Discuss the special bond between Allied aviators and their European helpers. Why did it take so long for many of them to reunite after the war?

2. What does ?ying mean to Marshall? Discuss Marshall’s failed B-17 mission and the effect it had on his life. (more…)


Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Quindlen_Lots of CandlesDiscussion Questions for LOTS OF CANDLES, PLENTY OF CAKE

1. In the opening lines of the book, Anna Quindlen says about the arc of her life: “First I was who I was. Then I didn’t know who I was. Then I invented someone, and became her.” Looking back over your own life, do you identify with Quindlen’s experience? Do you think you’ve “invented” yourself as you’ve grown older, or become who you always were? And how would you differentiate between the two?

2. Anna Quindlen loves everything about books—from the musty smell of old bookstores, to the excuse reading provides to be alone. Books, she writes, “make us feel as though we’re connected, as though the thoughts and feelings we believe are singular and sometimes nutty are shared by others, that we are all more alike than different.” What do you most love about books? Be specific: Is it the entertainment, the escape, the sense of connection? Something else entirely?

3. Anna writes hilariously about the small white lies—the cost of a kitchen renovation, for example—that can keep a marriage healthy. Do you agree? If so, fess up: Which of your innocent fibs do you think has spared your relationship the most grief?

4. Anna tells her children that “the single most important decision they will make…[is] who they will marry.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

5. Anna calls girlfriends “the joists that hold up the house of our existence,” and believes that they become more and more important to us as we grow older. Have you found this to be true? If so, why do you think that’s the case? What do you think close girlfriends offer that a spouse cannot? (more…)

A Reader’s Guide: Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow by Juliet Grey

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

Juliet Grey on Writing

Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow

A Reader’s Guide

Grey_Days of Splendor, Days of SorrowIt provided great pleasure, but also left me with a measure of sadness, to continue the story of Marie Antoinette’s life in Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow, because of course we know the tragic denouement. I felt that part of my role in this middle novel in the trilogy was to show how Marie Antoinette’s journey continued along its fatal path. It’s clear from the book’s epigraph, taken from a quote at the time she ascended to the throne as the queen consort of Louis XVI, that she was considered a liability. Add that to all the animosity that had built up against her, particularly within the French court, during the four years she was dauphine—an effervescent teenage girl making enemies right and left as she pushed with all her might against the rigid etiquette of Versailles.

One can go back even further to the 950 years of enmity that existed between France and Marie Antoinette’s native Austria, a political albatross hung around her pale and slender neck almost as soon as her betrothal to the future Louis XVI was arranged. When her mother, the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa, sent her to France in April 1770, she exhorted her youngest daughter to make the French love her. With a few notable exceptions, that admiration came mostly during the late reign of Louis XV, who by then was roundly despised by his subjects. The charming (and morally upright) strawberry-blond dauphine and her husband were seen as the great young hopes for France’s future.

But Marie Antoinette’s popularity soon faded as the propa- ganda spread that she was not comporting herself with the dignity of a French queen and was, moreover, behaving like a royal mistress by decking herself out in increasingly elaborate jewels, gowns, and other accoutrements such as the outrageous (and outrageously expensive) towering “pouf” coiffures. Her subjects, convinced by propaganda disseminated from within Versailles itself, published by nobles she had angered by ostracizing them from her intimate circle, soon saw her as the queen of excess.

Marie Antoinette’s behavior predates the study and practice of psychoanalysis, but in Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow I aimed to convey the genesis of her extravagance and what lay behind her increasing mania for pleasure. It was of course primarily a substitute for what she most desired—a child, especially a son and heir—not only for the security of the Bourbon dynasty, but be- cause she adored children. Her life might have taken a different trajectory had she conceived early in her marriage. Instead, her first child, a daughter, was born in the waning days of 1778, a frustrating and embarrassing eight and a half years after her nuptials—ample time for her enemies to recast the religiously devout and faithfully wed young queen as a promiscuous hedonist.

What happened on her wedding night was immortalized by Louis in his hunting journal with a single word: rien. Nothing—although the reference was really a notation that the bridegroom had not killed any woodland creatures that day because he’d not gone hunting. Not only was Louis shy and uncomfortable around his new bride, but he may have suffered from a mild deformity of the penis known as phimosis, where the foreskin is too tight to retract. This condition made intercourse, and even an erection, painful.

Historians’ opinions are divided as to whether Louis suffered from phimosis and underwent a minor procedure (not as radical as circumcision) in late 1773 to correct the defect (for narrative reasons I placed the event in 1774, after he became king); or whether his inability to make love to Marie Antoinette was purely psychological or psychosomatic. The latter is harder to believe because Louis admitted that he both loved and respected Marie An- toinette and found her very beautiful. While a number of present-day scholars vehemently dispute the phimosis speculation as being the pet theory of Marie Antoinette’s twentieth-century biographer, the Freudian Stefan Zweig, they cannot explain away the preponderance of correspondence that came out of the Bourbon court at the time. This included not merely the dispatch from the Spanish ambassador to his sovereign graphically discussing the issue of Louis’s penis (which could be dismissed as gossip), but a number of letters written between Marie Antoinette and her mother discussing whether or not Louis was prepared to submit to the operation, and the medical opinions of the various court physicians on the subject. The language of that correspondence most clearly refers to a physical problem. Whether it was compounded by psychological and emotional issues is also a possibility. Unfortunately, Louis’s boyhood tutor, the duc de la Vauguyon, had instilled in him a hatred of women and a particular distrust of Austrian females. But by 1773, the dauphin and dauphine had become close friends, and presented a united front against the duc’s malevolent influence. This was even truer by the time they ascended the throne in 1774.

The subject of Louis’s phimosis and how it was treated is one of a couple of controversial topics I explore in this novel. I do believe that he suffered from a mild physical deformity and that he underwent a corrective procedure. The operation detailed in the novel is taken from a procedure performed in France around 1780 so it is about as accurate a description as one can get of what Louis’s medical treatment might have been like.

Another of my aims in writing the Marie Antoinette trilogy was to convey the humanity (and sometimes not) within these historical figures. Too often they have been depicted in film and literature as archetypes, stereotypes, or dusty relics of an era long past. As I breathed life into characters who to some readers may be little more than names from a history book, I saw them as vibrant and vital, complex and flawed. It was also my intention to depict some of the lesser-known (but equally fact-based) events of their lives. For example, the silk merchants of Lyon really did pay a call on Mesdames asking for their support after Marie Antoi- nette began to dress almost entirely in the muslin gaulles; Marie Antoinette really did suffer a terrible fall and hit her head, and Madame Royale’s shocking reaction to her mother’s injury, as well as the conversation she had with her father about whether he would have preferred a son instead of her, really happened. I was stunned when I first read about the incident in the many biographies because it revealed so much about the characters of the precocious and envious Madame Royale and the king, who was a tremendously sentimental man. Louis indeed adored his little girl from the moment of her birth and never resented her gender, de- spite the immense pressure upon both him and Marie Antoinette to produce a son and heir. The fact that both of them were such sentimental, vulnerable, and fairly hands-on parents made them quite anomalous, especially for royals, even in the Age of Enlightenment. In another fascinating moment “ripped from real life,” the queen did indeed summon Jean-Louis Fargeon to le Petit Trianon to create a perfume that captured the essence of her private idyll (I own a replica of the fresh, floral scent, which made my research all the more redolent!). And she did ask Fargeon to develop a unique fragrance for a man she described as “virile as one can possibly be,” that phrase, in translation of course, taken from the perfumer’s own diary. In a subsequent event, to be depicted in The Last October Sky, the third novel of the Marie Antoinette trilogy, many years later the aroma of that custom-made toilet water will come back to haunt Fargeon’s nostrils.

One of the central aspects of this novel is the developing relationship between Count Axel von Fersen and Marie Antoinette. Historically, there has been some controversy as to how far it went, whether it remained strictly platonic, whether (and when) it may have blossomed into a physical love affair, and whether Marie Antoinette ever violated her deeply held marriage vows and consummated her passion for Fersen.

I have a cardinal rule about writing historical fiction: If it could have happened, bolstered by solid research, then it’s fair game to be included in a novel. Stanley Loomis, in The Fatal Friendship: Marie Antoinette, Count Fersen, and the Flight to Varennes, offers enough compelling evidence for a relationship between them that may indeed have eventually been consummated. Biographers Antonia Fraser, Stefan Zweig, Vincent Cronin, and André Castelot share that opinion. We have the culture of the eighteenth century to thank for the plethora of diaries and memoirs left to posterity. Some may be more reliable than others. After Marie Antoinette’s death, Fersen’s beloved sister Sophie, to whom he was especially close, burned a number of his letters; and at some point (perhaps after his gruesome murder on June 20, 1810, which took place exactly nineteen years to the day from the royal family’s fateful flight to Varennes in June of 1791, an event that will be dramatized in The Last October Sky), his diaries were heavily redacted. However, enough of Fersen’s own words remain to obliquely hint at a relationship with Marie Antoinette that went far deeper than the proper bounds of a common friendship. We have his declaration to Sophie that he would never wed because he could not be united with the one woman he really loved and who loved him in return. As historians cannot document any abiding yet for some reason inappropriate or equally illicit relationship with another woman (his other love affairs, regardless of their duration, were fairly inconsequential by comparison), the conclusion is viable (certainly by a novelist), that he gave his heart and soul (and the case can be made for giving his body) to Marie Antoinette.

There is no denying that Fersen risked his life more than once to save the queen—and the king, of course, whom he also admired, possibly making his transgression all the more guilt-inducing.

The events that I used to build the relationship between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen are rooted in fact. As for the issue of privacy in a royal court, Marie Antoinette, who detested being surrounded by an enormous entourage while she was dauphine, immediately changed the rules when she became queen, reducing the size of her retinue (most of whom had been assigned to her upon her arrival in 1770) to a handful of trusted attendants. Moreover, she was roundly criticized for turning le Petit Trianon into her exclusive haven. Whereas Versailles had traditionally been open to the people, she had signage posted on the gates of her little château and about its acreage stipulating that entrance to the premises was by permission of the queen alone, and that all visitors had to be escorted inside by her servants or attendants.

The existence of the mechanical mirrored window shades that closed off the view inside to all would-be trespassers or intruders, who would find themselves staring at their own reflec- tions if they dared to pry, is a fact. At le Petit Trianon, therefore, it was simple enough to dismiss the servants from a room, to enjoy private tête-à-têtes with her confidants of both sexes, or even with a room full of people. It was precisely this exclusivity, and the maddening notion that all sorts of goings-on were taking place at le Petit Trianon to which they were not invited, which gave rise to the rumors spread by her detractors of Marie Antoi- nette’s rampant debauchery there. Ironic, isn’t it, how the very aristocrats who derided the queen for having a personal fairyland were so desperate to secure an invitation. They never received one because Marie Antoinette, who knew what was being said about her, did not feel the need to surround herself with, in twenty-first-century parlance, “toxic” people.

But le Petit Trianon was indeed a private idyll where Marie Antoinette could truly be herself. Insofar as being able to consummate a romance there with Axel von Fersen, a lawyer would no doubt concede that she had both motive and opportunity.

The more I considered what is essentially a love triangle with the queen at its apex (because I do believe that by the time Axel returned to France in 1778 Marie Antoinette and Louis had grown to love each other in a quiet, solid way), the more the three of them began to remind me of another trio of royals: King Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. Although those archetypal characters (who may have been actual historical figures) are En- glish, their story was first set down by Chrétien de Troyes, a French romance writer in the Middle Ages. The elements of Guinevere and Lancelot’s star-crossed love affair, and their shared affection for Arthur, as well as Arthur’s deep respect for Lancelot, are also present in the Louis/Antoinette/Fersen triangle.

At bottom is a very human dynamic that has played itself out countless times in myriad marriages, along with the woman’s struggle to reconcile the parts of herself that are satisfied by each of the men: the physical passion she finds with a handsome soul mate, and the solidity and devotion of a faithful husband to whom she is not sexually attracted. She must also battle the demons of guilt, betrayal, and remorse that cannot fail to rear their gargoyle-like heads once she has made the difficult decision to violate the marriage vows she had previously held so sacred.

Although Marie Antoinette was raised from the cradle to despise adulterers (because her father had a mistress, a relationship that deeply wounded her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa), I believe she ultimately became one. I imagine the emotional cost (not to mention the obvious risks) must have been enormous for her, to have spent her entire life up to a point with an unshakable view that is finally shattered by her own volition.

As to the famous Affair of the Diamond Necklace, the French system of justice at the time worked in a fairly arcane manner. Defendants were arrested and incarcerated without being told what they were accused of or who their accusers were. They could hire lawyers but their attorneys were not permitted to be present during the inquisitions; they could only publish trial briefs which were based on hearsay (and which in this case were truly sensational). These trial briefs were little more than professionally penned scandal sheets that sought to exonerate their cli- ents by influencing not only the magistrates of the Parlement, the region’s judicial body, but the public as well—a public that was entirely ignorant of the facts of the case being investigated and tried.

To answer the inevitable question, “How many of the events of this book really happened?” nearly all of them are based on the historical record, both the larger picture as well as many of the more intimate details regarding the events of the characters’ interrelationships, with the exception of the sexual relationship between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen, where, as a novelist, I chose to explore the possibility propounded by numerous biographers that their friendship blossomed into an affair. Although this position is controversial, when all is said and done, Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow is a work of historical fiction.

Yet their friendship, as well as the other interrelationships in the novel, has been thoroughly researched. In some instances I even put actual quotes into my characters’ mouths; die-hard Marie Antoinette aficionados may spot them. To that end, much of the correspondence in the novel is based on the genuine letters as well. In a couple of cases I moved things around; for example, the letter that opens chapter four was in reality written exactly a year earlier. And with regard to the events leading up to and surrounding the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, the movements of the key and supporting players are so complicated they could merit an entire novel of their own. So I truncated the timeline just a bit and excised a few of the supernumeraries because they weren’t germane to Marie Antoinette’s knowledge of events.

For narrative flow, I also combined the circumstances of two of Marie Antoinette’s miscarriages into a single tragedy. In actuality, the miscarriage brought on by the coach ride was a separate incident from the one that occurred on her birthday. And Marie Antoinette’s renovation of rooms within her own apartment at Versailles for Axel von Fersen, complete with a Swedish stove, occurred in October 1787, rather than during the spring.

A third aim in writing Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow was to set forth some of the real reasons France was financially bankrupt by the time the Bastille was stormed on July 14, 1789. Discontent had existed for well over a generation—for several decades, in fact, going all the way back to Louis XV’s expenditures on the Seven Years’ War (1756–63); although it was his mistresses’ ex- travagances, particularly those of Madame de Pompadour, that angered the French just as much because these were tangible, vis- ible reflections of excess: the clothes, the jewels, the amount of money lavished on furnishings and interior design, and of course the construction of le Petit Trianon, which later became a code phrase for the debauchery that was corrupting the nation, thanks to the outrageous behavior that the anti–Marie Antoinette propa- gandists ascribed to the queen.

Both Louis XV and Louis XVI emptied the treasury to fight foreign wars, which cost the French exponentially more than any royal mistress (or Marie Antoinette) ever spent, even at the zenith of their acquisitiveness. Americans might want to look long and hard at this period of history because if Louis XVI had not supplied the colonists with so much financial and military aid, including providing soldiers, sailors, and ships, throwing the might of France’s navy into their struggle for liberty, the British might have ultimately prevailed.

This decision cost the French crown in more ways than one. Many of their aristocrats fighting in North America returned not only victorious, but infused with the spirit of liberty, watering the seedlings that had already begun to sprout in the fashionable salons and coffeehouses of Paris and behind the gilded paneling of the Palais Royal—spearheaded by the king’s cousins, the duc d’Orléans and his son, the even more ambitious duc de Chartres, who inherited his father’s title in 1785. Their radical ideas were bolstered by the writings of the French philosophers of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who suggested that all men had equal rights under God, no matter the circumstances of their birth.

By July 14, 1789, the storm clouds of revolution had already gathered over Paris, but just a few leagues away at Versailles, the monarchs were convinced that the republican fervor was no more than a temporary ill wind. How they met the realization that the world as they had always known it was changing all about them, with a velocity they neither predicted nor were equipped to handle, will be dramatized in the final novel of the Marie Antoinette trilogy, The Last October Sky.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. France and Austria had been at odds for more than 950 years by the time Marie Antoinette married Louis. This was a huge weight to bear at the age of fourteen. In what other ways was her marriage to Louis troubled before she even moved to France?

2. “I am terrified of being bored” and “I felt so useless.” These statements seem to be at the root of Marie Antoinette’s struggles. Do you think that if she’d been able to have children earlier in her marriage this general sense of ennui would have been as prevalent? In what ways do you imagine things in the royal world would have been different if she had been able sooner to fulfill her dream of becoming a mother?

3. Marie Antoinette comments that she felt pressure to keep up with the fashion and luxury of Paris. Do you think that she ever felt truly guilty about her overspending and debt-accruing ways? Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? What parallels do you see between the financial troubles in France and those of the United States and other countries today? What about the political climate?

4. Do you think that Marie Antoinette’s interest in getting involved in the politics of the monarchy was a direct result of the problems that she and Louis had in their marriage? Was Marie Antoinette too strong-willed for Louis? Was Louis threatened by her? How did you interpret the dynamics of their relationship?

5. In what ways was le Petit Trianon a symbol of who Marie Antoinette was? If she had been more open to interacting with the public, do you think she would she have ended up so alienated from her people?

6. Were you cheering for Marie Antoinette’s kiss with Count Axel von Fersen or did you feel that she should have been loyal to her husband regardless of their problems? Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow takes a controversial approach in positing, based on circumstance and some of Axel’s letters to his sister, that Marie Antoinette and Axel consummated their affaire de coeur. What do you think really happened?

7. At the zoo, Marie Antoinette says that the tiger is her favorite animal there because it reminded her of her mother. If her mother is a tiger, what kind of animal would Marie Antoinette be? What kind of animal do you think that she herself would identify with?

8. In what ways were Marie Antoinette and Louis alike? In what ways were they different?

9. Do you think the punishments meted out to Jeanne de Lamotte-Valois, her husband, and Cardinal de Rohan following the Affair of the Diamond Necklace were just? Were you surprised by how easy it was for Marie Antoinette’s detractors to convince the public that she was at fault?

10. “I will not believe that Frenchmen would rebel against the Crown,” Louis says. How do you think he was able to remain so naïve about what would happen to France?

11. Do you think the French Revolution was inevitable? If there was any one moment at which Louis and his advisors could have turned the tide of public opinion, what was it? After reading Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow, how much responsibility for the revolution do you attribute to Marie Antoinette’s actions?

12. What scene in Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow surprised you most? Do you feel more sympathetic toward Marie Antoinette than you did before reading this novel? Why or why not?

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