Psychological fiction

The Silent Patient

Author: 
Michaelides, Alex

Alicia Berenson’s life is seemingly perfect.

A famous painter married to an in-demand fashion photographer, she lives in a grand house with big windows overlooking a park in one of London’s most desirable areas.

One evening her husband Gabriel returns home late from a fashion shoot, and Alicia shoots him five times in the face, and then never speaks another word.

Alicia’s refusal to talk, or give any kind of explanation, turns a domestic tragedy into something far grander, a mystery that captures the public imagination and casts Alicia into notoriety.

The price of her art skyrockets, and she, the silent patient, is hidden away from the tabloids and spotlight at the Grove, a secure forensic unit in North London. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. How would you describe Alicia Berenson and the life she has lead up to the time she kills her husband? What was your initial sense of why Alicia refused to speak?

2. Alicia's self-portrait is entitled Alcestis, based an ancient Greek Eurpidean tragedy, which in turn is based upon Greek mythology. Do a bit of research into the myth to find out what Alicia might have been saying about herself in her portrait. What, in other words, does the painting reveal about the painter?

3. Follow-up to Question 2: The author once took a post-grad course in psychotherapy and subsequently spent a couple of years working part-time in a psychiatric unit like the Grove. What does Michaelides mean when, in 2018, he said in an interview with the Bookseller

I saw how the world of psychotherapy might be the perfect modern setting to reimagine [Alcestis'] story and explore its themes of death, guilt and silence.

4. Follow-up to Questions 2 and 3: Do you begin to see Alicia as a mythic character, a parallel to Alcestis? If so, in what way?

5. The author has created his own challenge: he must gradually reveal Alice to readers (and to Theo) without allowing her to tell her own story. How does Michaelides use Alicia's physical appearance and artwork to reveal her character?

6. What do think of Theo, initially, as he begins to work with Alice? What do you come to understand about him, and his motivation, as the book unfolds? In what way does your view of Theo change?

7. Were you shocked by the big reveal at the end? Or did you see it coming?

8. The Silent Patient is called a psychological thriller, but the reviewer of Crime by the Book blog considers it an in depth character study in which both characters' identities take precedence over the actual crime. In what genre would you place the book—character study or plot-based thriller? (It's presumably "both," but let's say you have to choose one or the other.)

(Questions by LitLovers)

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

Author: 
Zevin, Gabrielle

In the spirit of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Gabrielle Zevin’s enchanting novel is a love letter to the world of books—and booksellers—that changes our lives by giving us the stories that open our hearts and enlighten our minds.

On the faded Island Books sign hanging over the porch of the Victorian cottage is the motto "No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World." A. J. Fikry, the irascible owner, is about to discover just what that truly means.

A. J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island—from Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who’s always felt kindly toward Fikry; from Ismay, his sister-in-law who is hell-bent on saving him from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who keeps on taking the ferry over to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.’s bad attitude.

Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.

And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It’s a small package, but large in weight. It’s that unexpected arrival that gives A. J. Fikry the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew.

It doesn’t take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming A.J.; or for that determined sales rep, Amelia, to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light; or for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.’s world; or for everything to twist again into a version of his life that he didn’t see coming.

As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read, and why we love. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. At the beginning of the story, Amelia says she is considering quitting online dating. How would you compare the act of buying books online to the act of dating online? Is it relevant to the story that Amelia meets her eventual husband in a very analog location, a bookstore?

2. Consider the setting. Why do you think the author chooses to set the book on an island? How does the island setting reflect A.J.’s character?

3. Perhaps oddly, vampires are a recurring motif in the story: for example, when A.J.’s wife throws the vampire prom and when A.J. watches True Blood to court Amelia. What do you make of the references to vampires?

4. Lambiase moves from an occasional or nonreader, to a reader, to a bookseller. How do you think becoming a reader changes him? Consider the scene where he decides not to Questions for Discussion 9 confront Ismay about the backpack. Do you think Lambiase’s reaction is different than it would have been if he hadn’t taken up reading?

5. The author chooses to begin each chapter with a description of a short story. Discuss some of the ways the stories relate to the chapters with which they are paired. Is A.J. creating a canon for Maya? How does the book itself function as a kind of canon? If these are A.J.’s favorites, what do they say about A.J. as a reader and as a man?

6. Did you find Ismay’s motivations for stealing Tamerlane to be forgivable? How do you think she should pay for her crime? Why do you think Lambiase lets her off?

7. At one point, Maya speculates that perhaps “your whole life is determined by what store you get left in” (page 85). Is it the people or the place that makes the difference?

8. When did you become aware that Leon Friedman might be an imposter? What did you make of Leonora Ferris’s reasons for hiring him?

9. How do you think Daniel Parrish might have changed if hehad lived? Do you think some people never change?

10. Were you surprised by the outcome of the short story contest? What do you think of A.J.’s comments to Maya about why certain books and stories win prizes and others don’t? Does the knowledge that a book has won a prize attract you to reading it?

11. Compare Maya’s “fiction” about the last day of her mother’s life to Ismay’s version. Which do you consider to be more accurate and why?

12. How do you think the arrival of the e-reader is related to the denouement of the story? Is A.J. a man who cannot exist in a world with e-books? What do you think of e-books? Do you prefer reading in e- or on paper?

13. At one point, A.J. asks Maya, “Is a twist less satisfying if you know it’s coming? Is a twist that you can’t predict symptomatic of bad construction?” What do you think of this statement in view of the plot of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry? Did you guess who Maya’s father was? If so, what were the clues?

14. The author chooses to end the novel with a new sales rep coming to an Island Books that is no longer owned by A.J. What do you make of this ending?

15. What do you think the future holds for physical books and bookstores?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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.)

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