Psychological fiction

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)

Into the Water

Author: 
Hawkins, Paula

Paula Hawkin's addictive new novel of psychological suspense.

A single mother turns up dead at the bottom of the river that runs through town. Earlier in the summer, a vulnerable teenage girl met the same fate.

They are not the first women lost to these dark waters, but their deaths disturb the river and its history, dredging up secrets long submerged.
 
Left behind is a lonely fifteen-year-old girl. Parentless and friendless, she now finds herself in the care of her mother's sister, a fearful stranger who has been dragged back to the place she deliberately ran from—a place to which she vowed she'd never return.
 
With the same propulsive writing and acute understanding of human instincts that captivated millions of readers around the world in her explosive debut thriller, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins delivers an urgent, twisting, deeply satisfying read that hinges on the deceptiveness of emotion and memory, as well as the devastating ways that the past can reach a long arm into the present.
 
Beware a calm surface—you never know what lies beneath. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. Family relationships, particularly the bond between sisters, feature heavily in Into the Water. How do you think Lena is affected by Nel and Jules’s estrangement? How does it influence her friendship with Katie?

2. Jules and Nel’s estrangement hinges on a misremembering of an event in their past. Are there any childhood or teenage memories you have that are no longer as clear when you look back now? How has this novel made you view your past, and the way it reflects upon your present?

3. Within the novel there are several inappropriate relationships — for example, Katie and Mark; Sean and Nel; Helen and Patrick. How does the depiction of the relationships between these characters affect your interpretation of their behavior and actions?

4. "Beckford is not a suicide spot. Beckford is a place to get rid of troublesome women." Discuss the gender dynamic in Into the Water. How much power does each of the women in the novel hold? What are the different types of power they hold?

5. Into the Water contains several different voices and perspectives. How did this structure affect your reading of the novel?

6. How do the epigraphs relate to the novel? Does one speak to you more than another? If so, why?

7. The structure of the novel means that we get tremendous insight into our suspects throughout. Who did you originally think was responsible for Nel’s death? Did your opinion change as the plot developed?

8. Was there a particular character you identified with? Was there a particular moment you found moving, surprising, or terrifying?

9. Many of the characters in the novel are grieving — some from more recent, raw losses and others from historic ones. How sympathetic were you to these characters? Was there a character you felt more sympathy for than another? Does their grief excuse their behavior?

10. Nickie Sage represents the legacy of witches that haunts the novel. Do you believe she sees things others cannot? Do you agree with the way she behaves?
(Questions from the author's website.)

The Woman in Cabin 10

Author: 
Ware, Ruth

From New York Times bestselling author of the "twisty-mystery" (Vulture) novel In a Dark, Dark Wood, comes The Woman in Cabin 10, an equally suspenseful and haunting novel from Ruth Ware—this time, set at sea.

In this tightly wound, enthralling story reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s works, Lo Blacklock, a journalist who writes for a travel magazine, has just been given the assignment of a lifetime: a week on a luxury cruise with only a handful of cabins.

The sky is clear, the waters calm, and the veneered, select guests jovial as the exclusive cruise ship, the Aurora, begins her voyage in the picturesque North Sea. At first, Lo’s stay is nothing but pleasant: the cabins are plush, the dinner parties are sparkling, and the guests are elegant.

But as the week wears on, frigid winds whip the deck, gray skies fall, and Lo witnesses what she can only describe as a dark and terrifying nightmare: a woman being thrown overboard. The problem? All passengers remain accounted for—and so, the ship sails on as if nothing has happened, despite Lo’s desperate attempts to convey that something (or someone) has gone terribly, terribly wrong…

With surprising twists, spine-tingling turns, and a setting that proves as uncomfortably claustrophobic as it is eerily beautiful, Ruth Ware offers up another taut and intense read in The Woman in Cabin 10—one that will leave even the most sure-footed reader restlessly uneasy long after the last page is turned. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. What’s the effect of having Lo’s e-mails and various news reports interspersed throughout Lo’s narration? In what ways do they help you better understand what’s happening aboard the Aurora?

2. When Lo first enters the ship, she says, "I had a sudden disorienting image of the Aurora as a ship imprisoned in a bottle—tiny, perfect, isolated, and unreal" (p. 37). In what ways does this statement foreshadow the events that take place on the ship? Describe the Aurora. In what ways do you think life on the ship may seem unreal? Discuss the book’s title. Why do you think Ware chose it? Did the title influence your reading of the novel? If so, how?

3. Who is Carrie? Did you like her? Why or why not? Describe her relationship with Lo. In what ways, if any, are the two women alike? How do Lo’s feelings about Carrie change as Lo gets to know her? Did your opinion of Carrie change as you read?

4. Lo questions Alexander about eating fugu during dinner aboard the Aurora, and he tells her that the fact it is poisonous is "what makes the experience" (p. 74). What does Alexander mean by his statement? Lo seems dubious about the appeal of it. Does Lo strike you as someone who takes risks? Were you surprised by any of her risky actions aboard the Aurora? Which ones, if any?

5. After Lo’s flat is burglarized, she calls Velocity’s assistant features editor, Jenn, and tells her about it. Lo says, "I told her what happened, making it sound funnier and more farcical than it really had been" (p. 13). Why do you think Lo underplays the break-in? How might this make her feel more in control? Have you ever underplayed an event of significance in your life?

6. When Lo panics on one of her first nights aboard the Aurora, she says, "I imagined burying my face in Judah’s shoulder and for a second I nearly burst into tears, but I clenched my teeth and swallowed them back down. Judah was not the answer to all this" (p. 49). Why is Lo so resistant to accepting help from Judah? Do you think that she’s right to be reticent? Describe their relationship. Do Lo and Judah support each other?

7. When Nilsson challenges Lo’s claim that she’s seen something happen in the cabin next to hers, she tells him, "Yes, someone broke into my flat. It has nothing to do with what I saw" (p. 141). Did you believe her? Did you think that the break-in made Lo more jumpy and distrustful? Give some examples to support your opinion.

8. When Lo first speaks to Richard Bullmer, she notices that he gives her "a little wink" (p. 79). What is the effect of this gesture? What were your initial impressions of Bullmer? Did you like him, or were you suspicious of him? After a prolonged conversation with Bullmer, Lo says, "I could see why [he] had got to where he had in life" (p. 194). Describe his manner. What does Lo think accounts for his success?

9. Archer tells Lo that self-defense is "not about size, even a girl like you can overpower a man if you get the leverage right" (p. 73). Is Lo able to do so? What kind of leverage does she have? What different kinds of power and leverage do the people on the Aurora use when dealing with each other? How did you react?

10. Judah tells Lo that "I still think, in spite of it all, we’re responsible for our own actions" (p. 334). Do you agree? In what scenes did you think the deception and violence that occurred were justified? In what scenes did you think it not justified?

11. When Lo sees the staff quarters on the Aurora, she says, "the rooms were no worse than plenty of cross-channel ferries I’d traveled on.... But it was the graphic illustration of the gap between the haves and have-nots that was upsetting" (p. 113). Contrast the guest quarters to those of the crew. Why does Lo find the discrepancy so unsettling? Much of the crew seemed unwilling to speak to Lo. Do you think this was caused by the "gap between the haves and have-nots"? Or some other reason?

12. Lo tells Judah, "You don’t know what goes on in other people’s relationships" (p. 333). Describe the relationships in The Woman in Cabin 10. Did you find any particularly surprising? Which ones, and why?

13. Bullmer tells Lo, "Why wait?... One thing I’ve learned in business—now almost always is the right time" (p. 190). Do you agree with his philosophy? In what ways has this attitude led to Bullmer’s success? Does this attitude present any problems aboard the Aurora? Do you think Lo shares the same life philosophy as Bullmer? How would you describe Lo’s philosophy on life?

14. Describe Lo’s relationship with Ben. She tells him "[e]verything I hadn’t told Jude. What it had been like....that I was vulnerable in a way I’d never thought I was before that night" (p. 82). Why does Lo share all this information with Ben rather than Jude? Did you think that Ben had Lo’s best interests at heart? Why or why not? Were you surprised to learn of their history?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

A Man Called Ove

Author: 
Backman, Fredrik

In this bestselling and delightfully quirky debut novel from Sweden, a grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon—the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” But must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.

A feel-good story in the spirit of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Fredrik Backman’s novel about the angry old man next door is a thoughtful and charming exploration of the profound impact one life has on countless others. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. How does the opening scene, in which Ove attempts to purchase a computer, succinctly express the main points of Ove’s ongoing battle with the stupidities of the modern world?

2. Ove loves things that have a purpose, that are useful. How does this worldview fail him when he believes himself to be useless? How is he convinced that he can still be useful?

3. As readers, we get to know Ove slowly, with his past only being revealed piece by piece. What surprised you about Ove’s past? Why do you think the author revealed Ove’s past the way that he did?

4. We all know our own grumpy old men. How do Ove’s core values lead him to appear as such a cranky old coot, when he is in fact nothing of the sort? Which of these values do you agree or disagree with?

5. Although Ove has some major "disagreements" with the way the world turned out, there are some undeniable advantages to the modernization he finds so hollow. How do these advantages improve Ove’s life, even if he can’t admit it?

6. Parveneh’s perspective on life, as radically different from Ove’s as it is, eventually succeeds in breaking Ove out of his shell, even if she can’t change his feelings about Saabs. How does her brash, extroverted attitude manage to somehow be both rude and helpful?

7. Ove strives to be “as little unlike his father as possible.” Although this emulation provides much of the strength that helps Ove persevere through a difficult life, it also has some disadvantages. What are some of the ways that Ove grows into a new way of thinking over the course of the book?

8. Ove is a believer in the value of routine—how can following a routine be both comforting and stultifying? How can we balance routine and spontaneity? Should we? Or is there sense in eating sausage and potatoes your whole life?

9. The truism “it takes a village to raise a child” has some resonance with A Man Called Ove. How does the eclectic cast of posers, suits, deadbeats, and teens each help Ove in their own way?

10. Although we all identify with Ove to some extent, especially by the end of the story, we certainly also have our differences with him. Which of the supporting cast (Parveneh, Jimmy, the Lanky One, Anita) did you find yourself identifying with most?

11. What did you make of Ove’s ongoing battle with the bureaucracies that persist in getting in his way? Is Ove’s true fight with the various ruling bodies, or are they stand-ins, scapegoats, for something else?

12. On page 113, after a younger Ove punches Tom, the author reflects: "A time like that comes for all men, when they choose what sort of men they want to be." Do you agree with this sentiment, especially in this context? How does the book deal with varying ideas of masculinity?

13. On page 246, the author muses that when people don’t share sorrow, it can drive them apart. Do you agree with this? Why or why not?

14. What do you think of Ove’s relationship with the mangy cat he adopts? What does the cat allow him to express that he couldn’t otherwise say?

15. On Ove and Sonja’s trip to Spain, Ove spends his time helping the locals and fixing things. How does Ove the “hero” compare and contrast to his behavior in the rest of the book? Is that Ove’s true personality?

16. Ove and Sonja’s love story is one of the most affecting, tender parts of the book. What is the key to their romance? Why do they fit so well together?

17. Saab? Volvo? BMW? Scania?
(Questions issued by 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)

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