Fiction

Beartown

Author: 
Backman, Fredrik

A dazzling, profound novel about a small town with a big dream—and the price required to make it come true.

People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees.

But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today.

Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

Beartown explores the hopes that bring a small community together, the secrets that tear it apart, and the courage it takes for an individual to go against the grain. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. What does hockey mean to the people of Beartown? What does winning the semifinal mean for the town’s future?

2. The town and the parents of the Beartown junior hockey team place great expectations on the shoulders of seventeen-year-old boys. How does this pressure affect the boys? Have the club’s leaders (David, Sune, Peter, and the others) prepared the boys to deal with this pressure? Have the boys’ parents?

3. How do issues related to social class affect the people of Beartown and the hockey club? Do those who live in the Hollow have a different world view from those who live in the Heights? Does hockey cut through class distinctions or reinforce them?

4. What does Kira’s role as a working mother, and her job as a lawyer, mean to her? How does her job affect the way others treat her? Consider this passage from the novel:

Not a second has passed since she had children without her feeling like a bad mother. For everything. For not understanding, for being impatient, for not knowing everything, not making better packed lunches, for still wanting more out of life than just being a mother. She hears other women in Beartown sigh behind her back: "Yes, but she has a full-time job, you know. Can you imagine?" (p. 63)

5. How do Peter and Kira complement each other in their relationship? How does he make up for her weaknesses, and vice versa? Do you think they have a solid marriage? A happy one?

6. Peter loves hockey because it demands his all, his everything. What does hockey demand from each of the characters in the book? What does it take from them?

7. There are many different parents and styles of parenting portrayed in the book. Which parents do you think are the most successful at preparing their children for the real world? Why?

8. Consider this sentiment echoed throughout the book: "What is a community? It is the sum total of our choices." (p. 312) By this definition, how do the townspeople of Beartown ultimately measure up? What kind of community have they built?

9. Several characters must find the courage to go against the grain of the tight-knit Beartown community. What is at stake for each character who does so, and is it worth it for them in the end?

10. Discuss the difference between male and female roles in the small village of Beartown. What is expected of the girls and women vs. the boys and men? Which characters break these expectations, and what are the consequences of doing so?

11. Consider the importance of names and nicknames throughout the novel. How does the lack of first names for "Kevin’s mother," "Kevin’s father," "David’s girlfriend," and Benji’s "bass player" change your impression of them? What effect does calling Maya "the young woman" have on Maya and her own narrative? How does she start to reclaim her own story?

12. In the course of the novel, we see that playing on a sports team teaches young people values like loyalty, responsibility, and commitment. But we also see instances of exclusion, aggression, and entitlement. Are their certain behaviors that are rewarded in a sports competition but considered inappropriate in daily life? Give examples. Which characters in the book have difficulty navigating this?

13. The events of the novel force the junior boys to grow up quickly as they are faced with very adult realities. What kind of man does Amat become over the course of the book? What do his actions reveal about him? What kind of man does Bobo become? Kevin? Benji?

14. Maya is surprised by how easily she can start to lie to her best friend, Ana, and keep secrets from her. How do each character’s secrets affect his or her relationship with loved ones? Consider the secrets between friends (Maya and Ana, Kevin and Benji, Amat and Zach), as well as those between parents and children, and husbands and wives.

15. How does Maya’s final act shape her future? How does it shape Kevin’s? Do you think a form of justice is achieved? Why or why not?

16. Why do you think Benji chooses to stay in Beartown and play for Sune’s A-Team instead of following the others to Hed? Was his choice affected by his relationship with the bass player?

17. At the end of the novel, do you think the tradition of the Beartown Hockey Club continues? Has its fundamental character changed? How do you think it will change going forward?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

Small Great Things

Author: 
Picoult, Jodi

Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years’ experience. During her shift, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient.

The parents are white supremacists and don’t want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?
 
Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime.

Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case but gives unexpected advice: Kennedy insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Conflicted by Kennedy’s counsel, Ruth tries to keep life as normal as possible for her family—especially her teenage son—as the case becomes a media sensation.

As the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy must gain each other’s trust, and come to see that what they’ve been taught their whole lives about others—and themselves—might be wrong.
 
With incredible empathy, intelligence, and candor, Jodi Picoult tackles race, privilege, prejudice, justice, and compassion—and doesn’t offer easy answers. Small Great Things is a remarkable achievement from a writer at the top of her game. (From the publisher.)

Genre: 
Discussion Guide: 

1. Which of the three main characters (Ruth, Turk, or Kennedy) do you most relate to and why? Think about what you have in common with the other two characters as well—how can you relate to them?

2. The title of the book comes from the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote that Ruth’s mother mentions on p. 173: "If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way." What does this quote mean to you? What are some examples of small great things done by the characters in the novel?

3. Discuss Ruth’s relationship with her sister, Adisa. How does the relationship change over the course of the novel?

4. Kennedy seeks out a neighborhood in which she is the only white person to help her gain some perspective. Can you think of an example of a time when something about your identity made you an outsider? How were you affected by that experience?

5. All of the characters change over the course of the novel, but Turk’s transformation is perhaps the most extreme. What do you think contributed to that change?

6. Discuss the theme of parenthood in the novel. What does being a parent mean to Ruth, to Kennedy, and to Turk? What does it mean to you?

7. Why do you think Ruth lies to Kennedy about touching Davis when he first starts seizing? What would you have done in her position?

8. Why do you think Kennedy decides to take Ruth’s case? What makes it so important to her?

9. Discuss the difference between "equity" and "equality" as Kennedy explains it on p. 427. Do you think Ruth gets equity from the trial?

10. Was your perspective on racism or privilege changed by reading this book? Is there anything you now see differently?

11. Did the ending of Small Great Things surprise you? If so, why? Did you envision a different ending?

12. Did the Author’s Note change your reading experience at all?

13. Have you changed anything in your daily life after reading Small Great Things?

14. Whom would you recommend Small Great Things to? Why?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

Turn of Mind

Author: 
LaPlante, Alice

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is a spellbinding novel about the disintegration of a strong woman’s mind and the unhinging of her family. Dr. Jennifer White, recently widowed and a newly retired orthopedic surgeon, is entering the beginning stages of dementia—where the impossibility of recognizing reality can be both a blessing and a curse.

As the story opens, Jennifer’s life-long friend and neighbor, Amanda, has been killed, and four fingers surgically removed. Dr. White is the prime suspect in the murder and she herself doesn’t know if she did it or not. Narrated in her voice, fractured and eloquent, a picture emerges of the surprisingly intimate, complex alliance between this pair—two proud, forceful women who were at times each other’s most formidable adversaries.

The women’s thirty-year friendship deeply entangled their families, and as the narrative unfolds we see that things were not always as they seemed. Jennifer’s deceased husband, James, is clearly not the scion he was thought to be. Her two grown children—Mark, a lawyer, and Fiona, a professor, who now have power over their mother’s medical and financial decisions respectively—have agendas of their own. And Magdalena, her brusque live-in caretaker, has a past she hides. As the investigation intensifies, a chilling question persists: is Dr. Jennifer White’s shattered memory preventing her from revealing the truth or helping her to hide it?

Told through the voice of a woman with a powerful intellect that is maddeningly slipping away, Turn of Mind is not only a suspenseful psychological thriller that pulses with intensity but also a brilliant portrayal of the fragility of consciousness and memory, and of a mind finally turning on itself. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. What is the time span of the novel? Were you clear about the flashbacks in Jennifer’s memory? Even in her surreal perceptions, is she still working out the past in the stories of James, Mark, Fiona, Amanda, and Peter? What about Dr. Tsu? Is the past really the past in Turn of Mind?

2. Would the story have worked as well if it had been told chronologically? Why, or why not? Consider the overlays of memory of all the characters. Do they provide double or triple exposures? The book is a memoir, a case history, and a mystery. “Something just wasn’t right about this from the beginning, she says, nothing fit.” (p. 278). How does the mystery reflect Jennifer’s condition? Does the ground keep shifting, for the reader, the detective, and, of course, Jennifer? Which characters keep searching for the missing piece of mosaic, lost somewhere in Jennifer? Are there times when we know more than Inspector Luton does? More than Jennifer? Or are we all, characters and readers, held with hints and suspicions until the end?

3. “This half state. Life in the shadows. As the neurofibrillary tangles proliferate, as the neuritic plaques harden, as synapses cease to fire and my mind rots out, I remain aware. An unanesthesized patient” (p. 8). Jennifer in her notebook describes her life in a fog. The term “coming of age” has a new meaning in Turn of Mind. As people grow up, we expect a loss of innocence. How is the process reversed in Alzheimer’s dementia? When Jennifer is trying to identify faces, she feels less capable than a six-month-old child, trying to “separate the known from the unknown” (p. 145). We think of Shakespeare’s "Ages of Man" when Jennifer compares the unhinged despair of fellow patients to the inconsolable, howling infant Fiona with colic.

4. After his riding catastrophe, Christopher Reeve lay frozen in his own body. He said to his wife, “I’m still here.” The essential Christopher was in there somewhere like the butterfly in the bell jar. Is that true of Jennifer? Which character do you think is able to see that essence the way Reeve’s wife could?

5. “What crime have I committed? How long have I been incarcerated?” Think of Kafka’s The Trial or The Castle or The Metamorphosis. (Gregor, as a giant beetle, hangs on to an internal reality, but his condition is surreal. His disconnect with family and friends is undeniable.)  Kafka’s characters are doomed for unknowable causes. Does Jennifer probe at guilt as a way to make sense of her fate?

6. What draws Jennifer and Amanda together? What locks them in a friendship/competition like a pair of magnets that often get turned around, wrong end to? At one point, Jennifer says, “My best friend. My adversary. An enigma at the best of times. Now gone, leaving me utterly bereft” (p. 53). Asked by police about the relationship, Jennifer says, “Close, but combative. Amanda was in many ways a difficult woman” (p. 41). “You’d have to hold your own or be vanquished” (p. 45). (Does this remind us of Jennifer’s own mother?)

7. What surprised you about the marriage of Jennifer and James? How well do you think you know James? James, described as a creature of darkness, is known for “keeping his own counsel on things of import” (p. 47). What were these things? Why are they important in unraveling the mysteries of the book?

8. “Magdalena would like a clean slate, while I am mourning the involuntary wiping of mine” (p. 81). What is Magdalena trying to erase in her past? Is her name suggestive of her role?  “I swear, sometimes I feel like I’m the one going nuts in this house” (p. 55). Is that surprising for one who is expected to be both advocate and jailer for Jennifer?

9. How does Jennifer refuse to be discounted? Even paranoiac, she has power. (Or is it paranoia when indeed everyone around her is set to restrain her or to humor her—patronize her, as she says.)

10. What is it about Jennifer that makes her so compelling, appealing, even?  She behaves badly, outrageously, but there is a larger-than-life element in her that we admire. Give examples. Her professional competency is widely praised, but when we meet her, judgment and self-control have been suspended. Terrible odds are against her, but her wit and pluck survive. There is vitality in her whether she rails against her cursed predicament or shrewdly cuts through the cant of caretakers or officials. As a character, is Jennifer someone you just want to spend time with—at a safe distance?

11. Even if you have not experienced Alzheimer’s at close hand, what is there in LaPlante’s book that speaks to us all? What is the universality of Jennifer White’s dilemma? How is it a metaphor for the human condition?

12. Did you enjoy the resonance of other works in LaPlante’s book? What authors were you reminded of? Since the perspective is Jennifer’s for the most part, what do the echoes tell us about her turn of mind, her intellectual modus operandi?

13. Sometimes people’s treatment of Jennifer seems to be a touchstone of their own characters. How did various hospital staff treat her? The taxi driver? People in the Italian bar? The homeless? A woman I once knew patted her Alzheimer’s husband as he was dying and said, “This is not the man I married, but I’ve learned to love this one, too.”  Do Mark and Fiona show signs of this reconciliation with their mother’s condition?

14. Reconciliations of all kinds seem to evaporate in Turn of Mind. It is not only Jennifer who is mercurial in the family. Talk about Mark and Jennifer, their family past and their adult lives. In the book there is a longing for order and restored harmony, but is this likely in the mayhem of an Alzheimer family? It is a world that tilts unpredictably, an image that recurs repeatedly.

15. "Do no harm." What are the ironies of the surgical amputation of Amanda’s fingers? How can one both mutilate and do good?

16. What is the Russian icon? How does it, as a symbol, work on multiple levels? Describe it. What is its history to Jennifer and James, Amanda, Mark, and Fiona?

17. Peter, in a prescient moment, says, “It’s those damned cicadas.... They make one think about Old Testament–style wrath-of-God type things” (p. 46). What are the dreadful revelations that grow more apocalyptic as they have to repeated, again and again, to Jennifer?

18. Are there ways in which Jennifer is privileged in her dementia? Think of her visions, her visitations. Once, as she looks into a mirror, she says, “I don’t recognize the face. Gaunt, with too-prominent cheekbones and eyes a little too large, too otherworldly. The pupils dilated. As if used to seeing strange visions. And then, a secret satisfied smile. As if welcoming them” (p. 200). Her fantasy life is a rich one, culminating in a scene like the book of Revelation when she re-enters the hallucinatory world of Amanda’s house, finding comfort in the crowds of old friends and family. “Perhaps this is my revelation? Perhaps this is heaven? To wander among a multitude and have a name for each” (p. 95).

19. Detective Luton is a linchpin for the story. How is she drawn to Jennifer, not only professionally but also personally? She says that her heart had been broken long ago, and it is being broken again with Jennifer. She sees in Jennifer a woman of quality and tries to reason with her. But Jennifer says, “The words make no sense. She is your sister, your long-lost sister. A shape-shifter. Anything is possible.... Who does she remind you of? Someone you can depend on” (pp. 277-278). How does the detective bring both hunches and skill to the case?

20. Fiona recalls “Amanda at her worst, her supercilious morality on full display” (p. 303). What is the confrontation here between “the iconoclast and the devoted godmother” as Fiona has earlier described her?

21. “Too many good-byes lie ahead.... How many times will I have to say good-bye to you, only to have you reappear like some newly risen Christ. Yes, better to burn the bridge and prevent it from being crossed and recrossed until my heart gives out from sheer exhaustion” (p. 114). Do we learn something new about Amanda here? Does the statement relate to her final acts? How directive is she to the end?

22. “Some things shouldn’t be scrutinized too closely. Some mysteries are only rendered, not solved” (p. 198). This is Jennifer to Mark about his father, but does it have relevance to the end of Turn of Mind? Are all the mysteries, in fact, explained at the end? Are there things that still puzzle you?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

Still Alice

Author: 
Genova, Lisa

Still Aliceis a compelling debut novel about a 50-year-old woman's sudden descent into early onset Alzheimer's disease, written by first-time author Lisa Genova, who holds a Ph. D in neuroscience from Harvard University.

Alice Howland, happily married with three grown children and a house on the Cape, is a celebrated Harvard professor at the height of her career when she notices a forgetfulness creeping into her life.

As confusion starts to cloud her thinking and her memory begins to fail her, she receives a devastating diagnosis: early onset Alzheimer's disease. Fiercely independent, Alice struggles to maintain her lifestyle and live in the moment, even as her sense of self is being stripped away. In turns heartbreaking, inspiring and terrifying, Still Alice captures in remarkable detail what's it's like to literally lose your mind...

Reminiscent of A Beautiful Mind, Ordinary People and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Still Alice packs a powerful emotional punch and marks the arrival of a strong new voice in fiction. (From the publisher.)

Genre: 
Discussion Guide: 

1. When Alice becomes disoriented in Harvard Square, a place she's visited daily for twenty-five years, why doesn't she tell John? Is she too afraid to face a possible illness, worried about his possible reaction, or some other reason?

2. After first learning she has Alzheimer's disease, "the sound of her name penetrated her every cell and seemed to scatter her molecules beyond the boundaries of her own skin. She watched herself from the far corner of the room" (pg. 70). What do you think of Alice's reaction to the diagnosis? Why does she disassociate herself to the extent that she feels she's having an out-of-body experience?

3. Do you find irony in the fact that Alice, a Harvard professor and researcher, suffers from a disease that causes her brain to atrophy? Why do you think the author, Lisa Genova, chose this profession? How does her past academic success affect Alice's ability, and her family's, to cope with Alzheimer's?

4. "He refused to watch her take her medication. He could be mid-sentence, mid-conversation, but if she got out her plastic, days-of-the-week pill container, he left the room" (pg. 89). Is John's reaction understandable? What might be the significance of him frequently fiddling with his wedding ring when Alice's health is discussed?

5. When Alice's three children, Anna, Tom and Lydia, find out they can be tested for the genetic mutation that causes Alzheimer's, only Lydia decides she doesn't want to know. Why does she decline? Would you want to know if you had the gene?

6. Why is her mother's butterfly necklace so important to Alice? Is it only because she misses her mother? Does Alice feel a connection tobutterflies beyond the necklace?

7. Alice decides she wants to spend her remaining time with her family and her books. Considering her devotion and passion for her work, why doesn't her research make the list of priorities? Does Alice most identify herself as a mother, wife, or scholar?

8. Were you surprised at Alice's plan to overdose on sleeping pills once her disease progressed to an advanced stage? Is this decision in character? Why does she make this difficult choice? If they found out, would her family approve?

9. As the symptoms worsen, Alice begins to feel like she's living in one of Lydia's plays: "(Interior of Doctor's Office. The neurologist left the room. The husband spun his ring. The woman hoped for a cure.)" (pg. 141). Is this thought process a sign of the disease, or does pretending it's not happening to her make it easier for Alice to deal with reality?

10. Do Alice's relationships with her children differ? Why does she read Lydia's diary? And does Lydia decide to attend college only to honor her mother?

11. Alice's mother and sister died when she was only a freshman in college, and yet Alice has to keep reminding herself they're not about to walk through the door. As the symptoms worsen, why does Alice think more about her mother and sister? Is it because her older memories are more accessible, is she thinking of happier times, or is she worried about her own mortality?

12. Alice and the members of her support group, Mary, Cathy, and Dan, all discuss how their reputations suffered prior to their diagnoses because people thought they were being difficult or possibly had substance abuse problems. Is preserving their legacies one of the biggest obstacles to people suffering from Alzheimer's disease? What examples are there of people still respecting Alice's wishes, and at what times is she ignored?

13. "One last sabbatical year together. She wouldn't trade that in for anything. Apparently, he would" (pg. 223). Why does John decide to keep working? Is it fair for him to seek the job in New York considering Alice probably won't know her whereabouts by the time they move? Is he correct when he tells the children she would not want him to sacrifice his work?

14. Why does Lisa Genova choose to end the novel with John reading that Amylix, the medicine that Alice was taking, failed to stabilize Alzheimer's patients? Why does this news cause John to cry?

15. Alice's doctor tells her, "You may not be the most reliable source of what's been going on" (pg. 54). Yet, Lisa Genova chose to tell the story from Alice's point of view. As Alice's disease worsens, her perceptions indeed get less reliable. Why would the author choose to stay in Alice's perspective? What do we gain, and what do we lose?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

State of Wonder

Author: 
Patchett, Ann

Ann Patchett raises the bar with State of Wonder, a provocative and ambitious novel set deep in the Amazon jungle.

Research scientist Dr. Marina Singh is sent to Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who seems to have disappeared in the Amazon while working on an extremely valuable new drug. The last person who was sent to find her died before he could complete his mission. Plagued by trepidation, Marina embarks on an odyssey into the insect-infested jungle in hopes of finding answers to the questions about her friend's death, her company's future, and her own past.

Once found, Dr. Swenson is as imperious and uncompromising as ever. But while she is as threatening as anything the jungle has to offer, the greatest sacrifices to be made are the ones Dr. Swenson asks of herself, and will ultimately ask of Marina.

State of Wonder is a world unto itself, where unlikely beauty stands beside unimaginable loss. It is a tale that leads the reader into the very heart of darkness, and then shows us what lies on the other side. (From the publisher.)

Genre: 
Discussion Guide: 

1. How would you describe Marina Singh? How has the past shaped her character? Discuss the anxieties that are manifested in her dreams.

2. “Marina was from Minnesota. No one ever believed that. At the point when she could have taken a job anywhere she came back because she loved it here. This landscape was the one she understood, all prairie and sky.” What does this description say about the character?

3. Talk about Marina’s relationship with her boss, Mr. Fox. Would you call what they share love? Do they have a future? Why does he want Marina to go to the Amazon? What propels her to agree?

4. What drew Marina to her old mentor, Annik Swenson? Compare and contrast the two women. How does Annick see Marina? Barbara Bovender, one of Annik’s caretakers/gatekeepers tells Marina, “She’s such a force of nature. . . . a woman completely fearless, someone who sees the world without limitations.” Is this a fair assessment of Annik? How would you describe her? How has the elderly doctor’s past shaped the person she is and the choices she has made?

5. Describe the arc of Marina and Annik’s relationship from the novel’s beginning to its end. Do you like these women? Did your opinion of them change as the story unfolded? Why didn’t Marina ever tell anyone the full story of her early experience with Annick?

6. Consider Annik’s research in the Amazon. Should women of any age be able to have children? What are the benefits and the downsides? Why does this ability seem to work in the Lakashi culture? What impact does this research ultimately have on Marina? Whether you are a man or woman, would you want to have a child in your fifties or sixties? How far should modern science go to “improve” on nature?

7. In talking about her experiences with the indigenous people, Annik explains, “the question is whether or not you choose to disturb the world around you; or if you choose to go on as if you had never arrived. “ How does Marina respond to this? Did Annik practice what she preached? How do these women’s early choices impact later events and decisions? How does Annik’s statement extend beyond the Amazon to the wider world? Would you rather make a “disturbance” in life, or go along quietly?

8. Talk about the Lakashi people and the researchers. How do they get along? Though the scientists try not to interfere with the natives’ way of life, how does their being there impact the Lakashi? What influence do the Lakashi have on the scientists?

9. Would you be able to live in the jungle as the researchers and natives do? Is there an appeal to going back to nature; from being removed from the western constraints of time and our modern technological society?

10. What role does nature and the natural world—the jungle, the Amazon River—play in Marina’s story? How does the environment influence the characters—Marina, Annik, Milton, Anders, Easter, and the others? Annik warns Marina, “It’s difficult to trust yourself in the jungle. Some people gain their bearings over time but for others that adjustment never comes.” Did Marina ultimately “gain her bearings”?

11. Marina travels into hell, into her own Conradian “heart of darkness.” What keeps her in the jungle longer than she’d ever thought she’d stay? How does this journey transform her and her view of herself and the world? Will she ever return—and does she need to?

12. What is your opinion of the choices Marina made regarding Easter? What role did the boy play in the story? Do you think Marina will ever have the child—one like Easter—that she wants?

13. What do you think happens to Marina after she returns home?

14. State of Wonder is rich in symbolism. Identify a few—for example, Eden Prairie (Marina’s Minnesota home), Easter (the young deaf native boy), Milton (the Brazilian guide)—and talk about how Ann Patchett uses them to deepen the story.

15. State of Wonder raises questions of morality and principle, civilization, culture, love, and science. Choose a few events from the book to explore some of these themes.

Someone Else's Love Story

Author: 
Jackson, Joshilyn

For single mom Shandi Pierce, life is a juggling act. She's finishing college, raising her delightful son Nathan, and keeping the peace between her eternally warring, long-divorced parents. She's got enough to deal with before she gets caught in the middle of a stickup in a gas station and falls in love with a man named William Ashe when he steps between the armed robber and her son to shield him from danger.

Shandi doesn't know that William has his own baggage. When he looked down the barrel of the gun in the gas station he believed it was destiny: it's been exactly one year since a tragic act of physics shattered his universe. But William doesn't define destiny the way other people do—to him destiny is about choice.

Now, William and Shandi are about to meet their so-called destinies head-on, making choices that will reveal unexpected truths about love, life, and the world they think they know. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. What does the title tell you about the story this story? What do we learn from the first line? How does the book's opening set the stage for the events that follow?

2. "That afternoon in the Circle K, I deserved to know, right off, that I had landed bang in the middle of a love story. Especially since it wasn't—it isn't—it could never be, my own. " Why could this story never be Shandi's? If it's not hers, than whose love story is it?

3. Everyone sees William as a hero for his acts during the robbery. How does William answer this? Would you call it brave? Why did Shandi have such faith that William would save them?

4. Destiny and choice are major themes in the novel. What does destiny mean to William? What about Shandi?

5. Shandi and Walcott have known each other forever. Discuss their relationship. How is it transformed? Why do we often miss the obvious in our lives?

6. How do the religious references sprinkled through the story—Natty's virgin birth for example—add a deeper level of flavor and meaning to the book?

7. Why is William angry with Bridget and not her "imaginary God"? When bad things happen most people blame God. Why? Why doesn't William?

8. Think about the novel's structure. The story moves back in forth in time between Shandi and Williams's pasts and their present. How does this form of storytelling shape your reading experience and comprehension of events as they unfold? How would the story be different if it began with William instead of Shandi?

9. How does their meeting change both William and Shandi? Would you call their meeting fate or destiny or maybe a miracle? "It isn't every day he meets a girl who killed a miracle," William thinks when he agrees to help Shandi. Why does her having "killed" a miracle so intrigue him?

10. How do each of these characters' certainties and beliefs change when they are confronted by unexpected circumstances—the robbery, the fireworks, the DNA results, meeting Natty's father for example?

11. The possibility of goodness and forgiveness are also themes in the book. Talk about how they are demonstrated in various characters' lives and experiences.

12. How many different kind of love stories are in the book? How do they all intertwine?

13. We're you surprised at the ending? Was it exactly what should happen for all the characters?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

Purity

Author: 
Franzen, Jonathan

A magnum opus for our morally complex times from the author of Freedom.

Young Pip Tyler doesn't know who she is. She knows that her real name is Purity, that she's saddled with $130,000 in student debt, that she's squatting with anarchists in Oakland, and that her relationship with her mother—her only family—is hazardous.

But she doesn't have a clue who her father is, why her mother chose to live as a recluse with an invented name, or how she'll ever have a normal life.

Enter the Germans. A glancing encounter with a German peace activist leads Pip to an internship in South America with The Sunlight Project, an organization that traffics in all the secrets of the world—including, Pip hopes, the secret of her origins. TSP is the brainchild of Andreas Wolf, a charismatic provocateur who rose to fame in the chaos following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Now on the lam in Bolivia, Andreas is drawn to Pip for reasons she doesn't understand, and the intensity of her response to him upends her conventional ideas of right and wrong.

Purity is a grand story of youthful idealism, extreme fidelity, and murder. The author of The Corrections and Freedom has imagined a world of vividly original characters—Californians and East Germans, good parents and bad parents, journalists and leakers—and he follows their intertwining paths through landscapes as contemporary as the omnipresent Internet and as ancient as the war between the sexes.

Purity is the most daring and penetrating book yet by one of the major writers of our time. (From the publisher.)

Genre: 
Discussion Guide: 

1. From the Sunlight Project to Purity Tyler herself, how is purity defined throughout the novel? Are any of these definitions realistic, or are they steeped in youthful idealism? What is at the root of the characters’ impurities?

2. The epigraph quotes a scene in Goethe’s Faust in which Mephistopheles (the Devil) says, “I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.” How does this notion of simultaneously benevolent and sinister intentions play out in Purity? Who are the novel’s most powerful characters? How is their power derived: Through secrets? Money? Integrity?

3. How would you have answered Annagret’s questionnaire, featured in the first chapter? What do Purity’s responses say about her?

4. Life in East Germany under the scrutiny of the Stasi is continually contrasted with Western freedoms, yet the West is also a breeding ground for corruption. What does Purity ultimately tell us about humanity’s capacity to exploit, and to redeem?

5. How are sex and trust interwoven in Purity? In the novel, is there a difference between the way men and women pursue their desires?

6. Discuss the novel’s images of mothering, especially between Katya and Andreas, Clelia and Tom, and Penelope and Purity. What accounts for the volatility in these relationships?

7. In their quest to expose the truth, are Tom and Andreas equally admirable? Is Leila’s investigative journalism on nuclear warheads more useful than the Sunlight Project’s leaked emails? Are the real-world hackers Julian Assange and Edward Snowden heroes?

8. Was Andreas right to bludgeon Horst on Annagret’s behalf? How do his motivations compare to those of Tom’s father when he rescued Clelia?

9. How did your opinion of Anabel shift as you read about her from different points of view? Is she insane or noble—or both?

10. Like Purity, the Pip who inhabits Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations faces quandaries of hidden identities and tainted money. How do the dilemmas of the Information Age compare to those of the past?

11. Under what circumstances would you turn down a billion-dollar trust fund? What do we learn about the characters through their perceptions of money and justice (such as Dreyfuss’s housing situation, which becomes a priority for Purity)?

12. What does the closing scene tell us about irreconcilable differences? What enables Purity to do better than her parents?

13. Which subplots give voice to timeless dilemmas? How does the novel advance the notions of fate and obligation explored in Jonathan Franzen’s previous books?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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