Love stories

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Author: 
Honeyman, Gail

No one’s ever told Eleanor that life should be better than fine.

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.

But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office.

When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living. And it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.

Smart, warm, uplifting, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is the story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine whose deadpan weirdness and unconscious wit make for an irresistible journey as she realizes.

The only way to survive is to open your heart. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. Knowing the truth about Eleanor’s family, look back through the book to revisit her exchanges with her mother. Did you see what was ahead? How did Honeyman lay the groundwork for the final plot twist? 

2. What are the different ways that the novel’s title could be interpreted? What do you think happens to Eleanor after the book ends? 

3. Eleanor says, “These days, loneliness is the new cancer—a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted” (p. 227). Do you agree? 

4. What does Raymond find appealing about Eleanor? And why does Eleanor feel comfortable opening up to Raymond? 

5. Eleanor is one of the most unusual protagonists in recent fiction, and some of her opinions and actions are very funny. What were your favorite moments in the novel?

6. “Did men ever look in the mirror, I wondered, and find themselves wanting in deeply fundamental ways? When they opened a newspaper or watched a film, were they presented with nothing but exceptionally handsome young men, and did this make them feel intimidated, inferior, because they were not as young, not as handsome?” (p. 74). Eleanor’s question is rhetorical and slightly tongue-in-cheek, but worth answering. What are your thoughts? If men don’t have this experience, why not? If they do, why is it not more openly discussed? 

7. Eleanor is frightened that she may become like her mother. Is this a reasonable fear? What is the balance of nature and nurture? 

8. Is it possible to emerge from a traumatic childhood unscathed? 

9. Eleanor says, “If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say” (p. 226–227). Why is this the case?  (From the publisher)

The Year of Pleasures

Author: 
Berg, Elizabeth

Betta Nolan moves to a small town after the death of her husband to try to begin life anew. Though still dealing with her sorrow, Betta nonetheless is determined to find pleasure in her simple daily routines. Among those who help her in both expected and unexpected ways are the ten-year-old boy next door, three wild women friends from her college days with whom she reconnects, a young man who is struggling to find his place in the world, and a handsome widower who is ready for love.

Elizabeth Berg's The Year of Pleasures is about acknowledging the solace found in ordinary things: a warm bath, good food, the beauty of nature, music, and art. Above all, The Year of Pleasures is about the various kindnesses people can—and do—provide one another. Betta's journey from grief to joy is a meaningful reminder of what is available to us all, regardless of what fate has in store. This exquisite book suggests that no matter what we lose, life is ready to give bountifully to those who will receive. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. Betta’s departure from Boston at the beginning of the book is abrupt, even rushed. Is her choice to move so quickly a good one? What is she running away from, and what is she running toward?

2. In the early pages of the book, while driving to the Midwest with all her belongings in tow, Betta finds a kind of freedom and relaxation on the road. What does moving, or even driving, have to do with this release Betta feels?

3. Betta refers to a belief that one is sometimes closer to someone after death than before. What does she mean when she says this? Have you experienced this, in your own life?

4. Moving to a new place fulfills a promise Betta had with John, but she makes the move alone. Discuss the ways that Betta finds strength and independence in her new life. In the moments when that strength falters, how does she cope?

5. Betta hopes to love John and to be loved by him after his death. Does she succeed? Do you think love can transcend death?

6. Do you agree with the philosopher Kierkegaard’s suggestion that no matter how many years have passed, when good friends meet again, they will simply pick up where they left off? How does this play out in the novel? In your own life?

7. Is Betta’s relationship with Tom doomed from the start? Why or why not?

8. Why do Betta and Matthew become friends? Do they want the same things from the friendship? Do you agree with the decision Betta makes, to rent the room in his apartment?

9. Betta says there are times when food is not just food. She uses food to heal, to comfort, and to seduce. Are there other ways in which food is important in this novel? In your own life, what roles do food and cooking play?

10. Finding joy in small things is important to Betta, and she uses joy as a vehicle for change. Do you agree with her philosophy? If so, what small things bring you great happiness? If not, why not?

11. What does Betta’s store symbolize? How does opening the store change her personality, and emotions? What is the importance of risk, and taking chances, in creating a new life? Have you ever undertaken a similar project?

12. A major theme of the novel is the transformation from tragedy to joy. Could Betta have found this certain kind of joy without the tragedy of losing John? How does the relationship between tragedy and joy operate, in the book and in your own life?
(Questions issued by publisher)

The Widower's Tale

Author: 
Glass, Julia

In a historic farmhouse outside Boston, seventy-year-old Percy Darling is settling happily into retirement: reading novels, watching old movies, and swimming naked in his pond. His routines are disrupted, however, when he is persuaded to let a locally beloved preschool take over his barn. As Percy sees his rural refuge overrun by children, parents, and teachers, he must reexamine the solitary life he has made in the three decades since the sudden death of his wife. No longer can he remain aloof from his community, his two grown daughters, or, to his shock, the precarious joy of falling in love.
 
One relationship Percy treasures is the bond with his oldest grandchild, Robert, a premed student at Harvard. Robert has long assumed he will follow in the footsteps of his mother, a prominent physician, but he begins to question his ambitions when confronted by a charismatic roommate who preaches—and begins to practice—an extreme form of ecological activism, targeting Boston’s most affluent suburbs.
 
Meanwhile, two other men become fatefully involved with Percy and Robert: Ira, a gay teacher at the preschool, and Celestino, a Guatemalan gardener who works for Percy’s neighbor, each one striving to overcome a sense of personal exile. Choices made by all four men, as well as by the women around them, collide forcefully on one lovely spring evening, upending everyone’s lives, but none more radically than Percy’s.
 
With equal parts affection and satire, Julia Glass spins a captivating tale about the loyalties, rivalries, and secrets of a very particular family. Yet again, she plumbs the human heart brilliantly, dramatically, and movingly. (From the publisher.)

Genre: 
Discussion Guide: 

1. From the stories that the characters remember and tell, what kind of mother (and wife) was Poppy Darling? How would you explain the very different kinds of mothers her two daughters, Trudy and Clover, have become? Discuss the choices these two women have made and how they affect their relationships with their children. And how about Sarah? What kind of mother is she? Does being a mother define any or all of these women?

2. How do Percy's age, background, and profession shape the way he thinks about the world around him? How does the way he sees himself differ from the way other characters see him? How has being a single father and now an involved grandfather defined him? How do you think he would have been a different father and man had Poppy lived?

3. By the end of the novel, how has Percy changed/evolved?

4. Why do you think Percy chose to avoid romantic or sexual involvement for so many years after Poppy's death? Is it habit and routine, nostalgia and commitment to his wife, or guilt over her death; or a combination of all three? Why do you think he falls so suddenly for Sarah after all that time alone? Why now?

5. The novel takes place over the course of a year, with chapters varying from Percy's point of view (looking back from the end of that year) to those of Celestino, Robert, and Ira. Why do you think Julia Glass chose to narrate only Percy's chapters in a first-person voice, the rest in the third person? (Does this make you think of the way she handled voice in her previous books?) And why do you think, when there are so many important female characters in this novel, that she chose to tell the story only through the eyes of men?

6. What do you think of the allusion in this book s title to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales?

7. This is a novel about family, the intricacies of the intertwining relationships among parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, siblings and cousins, in-laws and girlfriends. Discuss and compare some of the central familial relationships here (particularly those between Percy and the various members of his extended clan). Do any of these relationships ring particularly true to your own family experiences? Which ones fascinate or move you the most?

8. Celestino is an outsider and a loner in the eyes of the law, an illegal alien who was brought to the United States by a stroke of good fortune, only to lose his favored status and end up in a precarious situation with little money and no close friends. Discuss the circumstances that bring him into Percy's circle and the way in which he becomes so important in Robert's and Percy's lives? What destiny do you imagine for him beyond the end of the novel?

9. Discuss Celestino and Isabelle's teenage relationship as compared with the way they view each other once they are reunited as adults. Do you think that it would have worked out differently under other circumstances, or do culture and class sometimes present insurmountable obstacles? Compare Celestino and Isabelle's youthful relationship with the one between Robert and Clara.

10. What do you think of Robert's relationship with his mother? Talk about the way he sees her in the college essay he wrote versus the way he sees her after the argument they have in the car the night before Thanksgiving and Robert finds out about the sibling he almost had. How is Robert's intimate view of Trudy, as her son and only child, different from Percy's fatherly view of Trudy as one of two daughters? Compare Robert's and Percy's different visions of her professional life: Robert's summer working in the chemo clinic versus Percy's first visit to the hospital when he seeks Trudy's advice about Sarah. Is there a generational difference to the way they encounter the world of modern medicine?

11. What about Percy' s relationship with Clover? What do you think about his sacrifice of the barn to help her out? Is it entirely altruistic? What are the unintended consequences to their love for each other? Why does Clover resent her father and betray both him and her nephew, Robert, at the end of the novel?

12. Why does Robert, the good student and good son, allow himself to become involved in Arturo's missions ? Discuss Robert's friendship with Arturo and why Arturo is so appealing to Robert. What do you think of the observation that Turo is of everywhere and nowhere?

13. What do you think about Turo's activist group, the DOGS, and their acts of eco-vandalism? Do you agree with Turo that conservation efforts like recycling and organic lawn care aren't dramatic enough to make a dent (p. 148) in society s lazy, consumerist ways that true change will come about only through extremism?

14. Discuss the importance of the tree house in the novel. What does it represent, if anything, to each of the four main characters?

15. What do you think of Ira and his relationship with Anthony? How have Ira s fears influenced his relationships in general? How do you imagine the crisis at the end of the book has changed him, if at all?

16. Homes often seem like characters in Julia Glass novels; compare Percy's house with key houses in her other novels, if you ve read them (e.g., Tealing, Fenno McLeod's childhood house in Three Junes; Uncle Marsden's run-down seaside mansion in The Whole World Over). Describe Percy's house and its significance to various members of the Darling family. Discuss its tie to the neighboring house and the revelation at the end about the two brothers who built the houses. Why is this important?

17. How have libraries changed over the course of Percy's working life, through his youth, his daughters youth, and now Robert's youth? Percy doesn t seem to approve of the direction libraries are going and the way in which society regards books. Do you?

18. "Daughters. This word meant everything to me in that moment: sun, moon, stars, blood, water (oh curse the water!), meat, potatoes, wine, shoes, books, the floor beneath my feet, the roof over my head" (p. 108). Compare and contrast Percy's two daughters.

19. Why is Sarah so evasive and even hostile when Percy confronts her about the lump in her breast and even after she starts cancer treatment with Trudy? What do you think about her decision to marry her ex-boyfriend when he offers her the lifeline of his health insurance and to keep this a secret from Percy? What does it say about Sarah and her feelings for Percy? Do you think the relationship, at the end of the book, is salvageable in any form?

20. While visiting a museum, Percy's friend Norval asks, So what sort of landscape are you? Percy replies, A field. Overgrown and weedy. Norval then suggests, Or a very large, gnarled tree (p. 278). How would you describe Percy? How about yourself; what sort of landscape are you?

21. How is The Widower's Tale both a tale of our time and a story specific to its place, to New England?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

Water for Elephants

Author: 
Gruen, Sara

An atmospheric, gritty, and compelling novel of star-crossed lovers, set in the circus world circa 1932, by the bestselling author of Riding Lessons.

When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, grifters, and misfits, a second-rate circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town.

A veterinary student who almost earned his degree, Jacob is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It is there that he meets Marlena, the beautiful young star of the equestrian act, who is married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. He also meets Rosie, an elephant who seems untrainable until he discovers a way to reach her.

Beautifully written, Water for Elephants is illuminated by a wonderful sense of time and place. It tells a story of a love between two people that overcomes incredible odds in a world in which even love is a luxury that few can afford. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. To what extent do the chapters concerning the elderly Jacob enhance the chapters recounting the young Jacob’s experiences with the Benzini Brothers circus? In what ways do the chapters about the young Jacob contribute to a deeper understanding of the elderly Jacob’s life?

2. How does the novel’s epigraph, the quote from Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hatches the Egg, apply to the novel? What are the roles and importance of faithfulness and loyalty in Water for Elephants? In what ways does Gruen contrast the antagonisms and cruelties of circus life with the equally impressive loyalties and instances of caring?

3. Who did you, upon reading the prologue, think murdered August? What effect did that opening scene of chaos and murder have on your reception of the story that follows?

4. In connection with Jacob’s formal dinner with August and Marlena in their stateroom, Jacob remarks, “August is gracious, charming, and mischievous” (page 93). To what extent is this an adequate characterization of August? How would you expand upon Jacob’s observation? How would you characterize August? Which situations in the novel reveal his true character?

5. August says of Marlena, “Not everyone can work with liberty horses. It’s a God-given talent, a sixth sense, if you will” (page 94). Both August and Jacob recognize Marlena’s skills, her “sixth sense,” in working with the horses. In what ways does that sixth sense attract each man? How do August and Jacob differ in terms of the importance each places on Marlena’s abilities?

6. After Jacob puts Silver Star down, August talks with him about the reality of the circus. “The whole thing’s illusion, Jacob,” he says, “and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what people want from us. It’s what they expect” (page 104). How does Gruen contrast the worlds of reality and illusion in the novel? Is there anything wrong with pandering to people’s need for illusion? Why do we crave the illusions that the circus represents?

7. Reflecting on the fact that his platitudes and stories don’t hold his children’s interest, the elderly Jacob notes, “My real stories are all out of date. So what if I can speak firsthand about the Spanish flu, the advent of the automobile, world wars, cold wars, guerrilla wars, and Sputnik—that’s all ancient history now. But what else do I have to offer?” (page 110). How might we learn to appreciate the stories and life lessons of our elders and encourage people younger than ourselves to appreciate our own?

8. Looking at himself in the mirror, the old Jacob tries “to see beyond the sagging flesh.” But he claims, “It’s no good.... I can’t find myself anymore. When did I stop being me?” (page 111). How would you answer that question for Jacob or any individual, or for yourself?

9. In what ways and to what degree do Uncle Al’s maneuvers and practices regarding the defunct Fox Brothers circus reflect traditional American business practices? How would you compare his behavior with that of major businessmen and financiers of today? What alternative actions would you prefer?

10. As he lies on his bedroll, after his night with Barbara and Nell, Jacob cannot empty his mind of troubling visions, and he reflects that “the more distressing the memory, the more persistent its presence” (page 143). How might the elderly Jacob’s memories corroborate or contradict this observation? What have been your experiences and observations in this regard?

11. In his Carnival of the Animals, Ogden Nash wrote, “Elephants are useful friends.” In what ways is Rosie a “useful” friend? What is Rosie’s role in the events that follow her acquisition by Uncle Al?

12. After Jacob successfully coaches August in Polish commands for Rosie, he observes, “It’s only when I catch Rosie actually purring under August’s loving ministrations that my conviction starts to crumble. And what I’m left looking at in its place is a terrible thing” (page 229). What is Jacob left “looking at,” how does it pertain to August’s personality and Jacob’s relationship with August, and what makes it a “terrible thing”?

13. How did you react to the redlighting of Walter and Camel, and eight others, off the trestle? How might we see Uncle Al’s cutthroat behavior as “an indictment of a lifetime spent feigning emotions to make a buck” (in the words of one reviewer)?

14. After the collapse of the Benzini Brothers circus and Uncle Al’s having“done a runner” (page 314), Jacob realizes, “Not only am I unemployed and homeless, but I also have a pregnant woman, bereaved dog, elephant, and eleven horses to take care of” (page 317). What expectations did you entertain for Jacob and Marlena’s—and their menagerie’s—future after they leave the Benzini Brothers circus? How do the elderly Jacob’s memories of Marlena and their life together confirm or alter those expectations?

15. At the end of the novel, Jacob exclaims, “So what if I’m ninety-three?...why the hell shouldn’t I run away with the circus?” (page 331). What would you project to be the elderly Jacob’s experiences after he runs away with the circus the second time? How does his decision reflect what we have learned about his early years?

16. Sara Gruen has said that the “backbone” of her novel “parallels the biblical story of Jacob,” in the book of Genesis. On the first night after his leaving Cornell, for example, Jacob—as did his biblical namesake—lies “back on the bank, resting my head on a flat stone” (page 23). In what other ways does Water for Elephants parallel the story of the biblical Jacob? How do the names of many of the characters reflect
names of characters in the biblical account?

17. In the words of one reviewer, Water for Elephants “explores...the pathetic grandeur of the Depression-era circus.” In what ways and to what extent do the words “pathetic grandeur” describe the world that Gruen creates in her novel?
(Questions by Hal Hager, of Hal Hager & Associates, Somerville, New Jersey.)

Twelve Times Blessed

Author: 
Mitchard, Jacquelyn

Jacquelyn Mitchard is one of America's best-loved storytellers. Fans adore her novels for their exquisite, gripping stories about family bonds. Now this master of the drama of daily life offers readers a different kind of boy-meets-girl tale, by turns frank and playful, that ponders the question: Can love conquer marriage?

It is True Dickinson's forty-third birthday, and her best friends have gathered on this snowy night in Cape Cod at a trendy neighborhood restaurant to celebrate. True has never felt more alone.

It's been eight years since the death of her husband, a pilot who, ironically, died in a car crash, leaving her to raise their son on her own. Both her son and her small business are thriving, and True's life is full. The success of her company, the love of her friends, and the proximity of her mother (for better and for worse) leave her with very little time for reflection, but if not now, when? Coming up on forty-three makes True realize that there is an empty space in her life that friends and family cannot fill. She feels her youth and beauty slipping away, and the possibility for romance has never seemed more remote. (From the publisher)

But everything will change the moment True and her beloved assistant, Isabelle, slide into a snow-filled ditch on the drive home. Saved by a young man she met earlier at the restaurant, True comes face-to- face with the opportunity to let love back into her life -- that is, if she can overcome her own fears, and if these two spirits can find a way to tame each other's wild hearts and to curb their supremely independent natures.

Twelve Times Blessed is the story of one year of transformation in a woman's life, and an unforgettable tale of the perils and pleasures of love in the modern age.

Discussion Guide: 

1. What are True's major character traits? What does her name suggest about her? What parallels, if any, are there with Emily Dickinson?

2. What are Hank's strengths and weaknesses? What attracts him to True? Did he encourage her insecurity? Does he betray her trust? Do men and women view sexual infidelity differently? How does True react to Hank's? Is it realistic?

3. Do you think the main conflict between Hank and True is their age difference? Is True's perception of the problem real, or exaggerated? How do you feel about older women and younger men?

4. Do you agree with the saying "Marry in haste, repent in leisure"? Or, if two people fall in love, virtually at first sight, do you believe that waiting is just a waste of time? Do True and Hank have more problems because of their quick wedding?

5. Another area of potential conflict for this relationship could be Hank's racial heritage. How do you feel about Hank's not directly revealing it to True? Do you think, in America, it is more or less significant than the age difference?

6. On the day of Hank's and True's wedding, the author writes, "A wedding, though a union, also is always a collision of conflicting interests, a competition of the most basic sort." Do you agree?

7. The concept of family, and the importance of family, hold a central place in this novel. Discuss Guy as a child and True as a mother--good and bad. What conflicts and benefits does Hank add? What makes a family different from a group of people who happen to live together--and which specific characters therefore are True's family?

8. How important are friends in a woman's life? What do Isabelle, Rudy, and Franny give to True? Do you think men have the same kinds of friendships as women?

9. This novel has an interesting structure, with each chapter representing a month. Why do you think the chapters open with sales copy from True's business? Are the months themselves, and what happens in each, symbolic, significant, or ironic?

10. Fate does indeed have a place in this book. What do you think about the fortune-telling episode? What do you think brings two people together: random chance or something else? Is there a divine plan for each of us

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