Psychological fiction

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Author: 
Hosseini, Khaled

Propelled by the same superb instinct for storytelling that made The Kite Runner a beloved classic, A Thousand Splendid Sunsis at once an incredible chronicle of thirty years of Afghan history and a deeply moving story of family, friendship, faith, and the salvation to be found in love.

Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are two women brought jarringly together by war, by loss and by fate. As they endure the ever escalating dangers around them-in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul—they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation. With heart-wrenching power and suspense, Hosseini shows how a woman's love for her family can move her to shocking and heroic acts of self-sacrifice, and that in the end it is love, or even the memory of love, that is often the key to survival.

A stunning accomplishment, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a haunting, heartbreaking, compelling story of an unforgiving time, an unlikely friendship, and an indestructible love. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. The phrase “a thousand splendid suns,” from the poem by Saib-e-Tabrizi, is quoted twice in the novel – once as Laila’s family prepares to leave Kabul, and again when she decides to return there from Pakistan. It is also echoed in one of the final lines: “Miriam is in Laila’s own heart, where she shines with the bursting radiance of a thousand suns.” Discuss the thematic significance of this phrase.

2. Mariam’s mother tells her: “Women like us. We endure. It’s all we have.” Discuss how this sentiment informs Mariam’s life and how it relates to the larger themes of the novel.

3. By the time Laila is rescued from the rubble of her home by Rasheed and Mariam, Mariam’s marriage has become a miserable existence of neglect and abuse. Yet when she realizes that Rasheed intends to marry Laila, she reacts with outrage. Given that Laila’s presence actually tempers Rasheed’s abuse, why is Mariam so hostile toward her?

4. Laila’s friendship with Mariam begins when she defends Mariam from a beating by Rasheed. Why does Laila take this action, despite the contempt Mariam has consistently shown her?

5. Growing up, Laila feels that her mother’s love is reserved for her two brothers. “People,” she decides, “shouldn’t be allowed to have new children if they’d already given away all their love to their old ones.” How does this sentiment inform Laila’s reaction to becoming pregnant with Rasheed’s child? What lessons from her childhood does Laila apply in raising her own children?

6. At several points in the story, Mariam and Laila pass themselves off as mother and daughter. What is the symbolic importance of this subterfuge? In what ways is Mariam’s and Laila’s relationship with each other informed by their relationships with their own mothers?

7. One of the Taliban judges at Mariam’s trial tells her, “God has made us different, you women and us men. Our brains are different. You are not able to think like we can. Western doctors and their science have proven this.” What is the irony in this statement? How is irony employed throughout the novel?

8. Laila’s father tells her, “You’re a very, very bright girl. Truly you are. You can be anything that you want.” Discuss Laila’s relationship with her father. What aspects of his character does she inherit? In what ways is she different?

9. Mariam refuses to see visitors while she is imprisoned, and she calls no witnesses at her trial. Why does she make these decisions?

10. The driver who takes Babi, Laila, and Tariq to the giant stone Buddhas above the Bamiyan Valley describes the crumbling fortress of Shahr-e-Zohak as “the story of our country, one invader after another… we’re like those walls up there. Battered, and nothing pretty to look at, but still standing.” Discuss the metaphorical import of this passage as it relates to Miriam and Laila. In what ways does their story reflect the larger story of Afghanistan’s troubled history?

11. Among other things, the Taliban forbid “writing books, watching films, and painting pictures.” Yet despite this edict, the film Titanic becomes a sensation on the black market. Why would people risk the Taliban’s violent reprisals for a taste of popcorn entertainment? What do the Taliban’s restrictions on such material say about the power of artistic expression and the threat it poses to repressive political regimes?

12. While the first three parts of the novel are written in the past tense, the final part is written in present tense. What do you think was the author’s intent in making this shift? How does it change the effect of this final section?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

The Storyteller

Author: 
Picoult, Jodi

Some stories live forever . . .

Sage Singer is a baker. She works through the night, preparing the day’s breads and pastries, trying to escape a reality of loneliness, bad memories, and the shadow of her mother’s death. When Josef Weber, an elderly man in Sage’s grief support group, begins stopping by the bakery, they strike up an unlikely friendship. Despite their differences, they see in each other the hidden scars that others can’t, and they become companions.

Everything changes on the day that Josef confesses a long-buried and shameful secret—one that nobody else in town would ever suspect—and asks Sage for an extraordinary favor. If she says yes, she faces not only moral repercussions, but potentially legal ones as well. With her own identity suddenly challenged, and the integrity of the closest friend she’s ever had clouded, Sage begins to question the assumptions and expectations she’s made about her life and her family. When does a moral choice become a moral imperative? And where does one draw the line between punishment and justice, forgiveness and mercy?

In this searingly honest novel, Jodi Picoult gracefully explores the lengths we will go in order to protect our families and to keep the past from dictating the future. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. The Storyteller opens with a story within a story: the gripping narrative that Minka Singer composes: first as a young student in Lodz, then from the ghetto where her family finds itself exiled, and finally, during her imprisonment at Auschwitz. How does the tale of Ania and Aleksander and Casmir Lubov intersect with the plot of the larger novel? In what ways does this fantastical tale of two brothers and the myth of the upior connect with the brutality of the Holocaust and the ongoing hunt for Nazi war criminals?

2. “Josef Weber is as close as you can get to being canonized while you’re still alive. Everyone in Westerbrook knows him…[h]e’s everyone’s adoptive cuddly grandfather.” (p. 22) How does Mary’s estimation of Josef Weber square with what Sage learns of him? How is Josef Weber’s public persona incompatible with the truths that he reveals to Sage? To what extent is it possible for someone who hides a terrible secret to be so seemingly good?

3. By way of explaining her self-imposed solitude, Sage reveals her dramatic facial scar to Josef Weber, in spite of her general embarrassment about her disfigurement. What is it about Josef Weber that Sage finds herself drawn to? To what extent does the genesis of their friendship seem entirely coincidental? At what point in the novel does Sage start being his friend and at what point does she stop?

4. “One of the first things Adam told me was that I was pretty, which should have been my first clue that he was a liar.” (p. 25) Is Sage’s extramarital relationship with Adam consistent with her character’s values? What does their affair offer her? To what extent does Adam’s love for Sage seem genuine? How does he seem to embody the qualities of the “liar” that Sage calls him?

5. “The reason that we go to meet the people who bring us tips about potential Nazis is so that we can make sure they aren’t nuts.” (p. 213) How does Leo Stein’s personality come across in the chapters in the book that he narrates? Why does Leo Stein find Sage Singer irresistible when he first meets her? How does Sage’s on again/off again relationship with Adam complicate her feelings for Leo?

6. “And why does it make me sick to hear him label me; to think that, after all this time, Josef would still feel that one Jew is interchangeable for another?” (p. 61) How do you interpret Josef’s interest in Sage’s Jewish heritage? Given that Sage does not self-identify as a Jew, and does not even believe in God, is she any less qualified to help Josef carry out his death? To what degree does the logic of Josef’s plan hinge on Sage’s being a Jew?

7. “I knew that what the Hauptscharführer saw in my book was…an allegory, a way to understand the complicated relationship between himself and his brother…[i]f one brother was a monster, did it follow that the other had to be one too?” (p. 382) What do Franz and Reiner Hartmann’s gestures toward Minka reveal about their true characters as individuals? Why does Josef Weber choose to lie about his identity (twice) to Sage? To what extent does Josef’s decision mirror that of Aleks Lubov, who chooses to protect the identity of his brother, Casmir, as the monster who terrorizes the village in Minka’s upior story?

8. How do Josef Weber’s recollections of life during the war compare to the memories of Sage’s grandmother, Minka? How did their witnessing so much death up close impact them, respectively, as perpetrator and survivor of the Holocaust? Why did both of them choose to keep details of this period of their life a secret from those closest to them for so long? How did their stories impact you as a reader?

9. “I started to pull the hem of the sweater, so that the weave unraveled. I rolled the yarn up around my arm like a bandage, a tourniquet for a soul that was bleeding out.” (p. 339) How does Minka react when she discovers her father’s bag among the cast-off belongings of Jews condemned to the gas chambers? What does this moment mark in her young life? How does her knowledge of German save her from a worse punishment for wanton destruction of property?

10. As she sorts and separates the belongings of the murdered victims of Auschwitz, Minka secretly collects the cast-off photographs of people who have been condemned to die. What does her risking severe punishment and the possibility of death in order to keep other people’s memories intact, reveal about her need to salvage and preserve something from destruction? Were you surprised when these photographs reappeared in the novel at the book’s conclusion?

11. Why does Sage decide to take justice into her own hands and grant Josef Weber his dying wish? How did you feel upon discovering that Sage was misled by Weber about his true identity? To what extent does Sage seem to forgive Weber for his actions? Why does Sage conceal her behavior from Leo Stein, and to what extent does her behavior seem rational and understandable, given all that she has endured—and lost—herself?

12. There are many storytellers complicit in the creation of this novel—the author, Jodi Picoult; Sage’s grandmother, Minka; Josef Weber, a.k.a. Franz Hartmann; Sage Singer, the protagonist who shapes the narrative through her actions; the many nameless victims of the Holocaust; even the reader, who constructs his or her own interpretation of these multiple narratives. Why do you think Jodi Picoult chose this title for her novel? How does the novel’s conclusion allow the reader to participate actively in the process of storytelling?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

Room

Author: 
Donoghue, Emma

To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it's where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it's not enough...not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son's bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.

Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, Room is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. Why do you think the entire book is told in Jack’s voice? Do you think it is effective?

2. What are some of the ways in which Jack’s development has been stunted by growing up in Room? How has he benefited?

3. If you were Ma, what would you miss most about the outside world?

4. What would you do differently if you were Jack’s parent? Would you tell Jack about the outside world from the start?

5. If Ma had never given birth to Jack, what would her situation in Room be like?

6. What would you ask for, for Sundaytreat, if you were Jack? If you were Ma?

7. Describe the dynamic between Old Nick and Ma. Why does the author choose not to tell us Old Nick’s story?

8. What does joining the outside world do to Jack? To Ma?

9. What role do you think the media play in the novel?

10. In a similar situation, how would you teach a child the difference between the real world and what they watch on television?

11. Why are we so fascinated by stories of long-term confinement?

12. What were you most affected by in the novel?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

Private Life

Author: 
Smiley, Jane

A riveting new novel from the Pulitzer Prize–winner that traverses the intimate landscape of one woman’s life, from the 1880s to World War II.

Margaret Mayfield is nearly an old maid at twenty-seven in post–Civil War Missouri when she marries Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early. He’s the most famous man their small town has ever produced: a naval officer and a brilliant astronomer—a genius who, according to the local paper, has changed the universe. Margaret’s mother calls the match “a piece of luck.”

Margaret is a good girl who has been raised to marry, yet Andrew confounds her expectations from the moment their train leaves for his naval base in faraway California. Soon she comes to understand that his devotion to science leaves precious little room for anything, or anyone, else. When personal tragedies strike and when national crises envelop the country, Margaret stands by her husband. But as World War II approaches, Andrew’s obsessions take a different, darker turn, and Margaret is forced to reconsider the life she has so carefully constructed.

Private Life is a beautiful evocation of a woman’s inner world: of the little girl within the hopeful bride, of the young woman filled with yearning, and of the faithful wife who comes to harbor a dangerous secret. But it is also a heartbreaking portrait of marriage and the mysteries that endure even in lives lived side by side; a wondrously evocative historical panorama; and, above all, a masterly, unforgettable novel from one of our finest storytellers. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. How would you describe this novel in one sentence?

2. Smiley’s epigraph for the book is a quote from Rose Wilder Lane. Why do you think she chose this particular line?

3. What is the purpose of the prologue? How did it color your interpretation of what followed?

4. Over the course of this novel—which stretches across six decades of American history—how does the role of women change? How might Margaret’s life—and marriage—have been different were she born later?

5. This is a book that begins and ends with war—starting in a Missouri that is just emerging from the destruction of the Civil War, concluding in California on the eve of World War II. Margaret’s personal life is also punctuated by historical events, the San Francisco Earthquake among them. How does this history affect the lives of characters? How does Margaret’s story offer the reader a different perspective on the larger life of the nation?

6. On page 64, Smiley writes, “Margaret began to have a fated feeling, as if accumulating experiences were precipitating her toward an already decided future.” Do you think her fated feeling proved accurate? Was marrying Andrew a choice she made, was the decision that of both of their mothers, or was it dictated by the time and place?

7. Lavinia tells Margaret, “A wife only has to do as she’s told for the first year” (page 75). When does Margaret finally take this advice? Why? Do you think this is good advice or manipulation?

8. Compare Lavinia’s advice with the counsel in the letters Margaret finds from Mrs. Early to Andrew. Whose is more useful? More insightful? Do you find Mrs. Early’s behavior toward Margaret and her mother deceitful?

9. What does Dora represent to Margaret? If she could trade places with her, do you think Margaret would? How does Dora think of Margaret? Do Margaret and Dora have anything in common? If not, what do you think brings them together?

10. Margaret and Andrew are both devastated by their son Alexander’s death, yet they react in different ways. How does Andrew’s perspective on this tragedy—that of a scientist and a man who believes in logical explanations—differ from Margaret’s? How does Alexander’s death change their marriage? Might things have been different if he had lived? Why or why not?

11. Thinking about Alexander’s death leads Margaret to think about her brothers and father and the way they died (page 138). Why do you think Private Life opens with descriptions of their deaths? Margaret thinks that their deaths must have been worse for her mother than Alexander’s was for her; do you agree?

12. What is the nature of Dora’s relationship to Pete? What do they get from each other? Pete and Andrew are both liars, yet very different men—but they also seem to get along. What, if anything, do you think they share? And how are they different from each other?

13. Discuss Andrew’s theories of the universe, and his academic dishonesty. Can you think of a modern-day analogue? If he were exposed today, what would happen to him?

14. Andrew Early is a scientist who is described to us at first as a genius. But it turns out to be more complex than that, and for as many of his ideas that are right (the earthquake, the moon craters) others are wrong (ether, double stars). Do you think it’s at all accurate to describe him as a “genius”—or even a “mad genius?” How does “science” augment the overall story the novel is telling

15. What role does Len Scanlan play in the novel, and in Margaret’s evolving perception of her husband and his work? Why doesn’t Margaret tell Andrew about Len’s indiscretions with Helen Branch?

16. Margaret falls in love with a family of birds—coots—that live in a nearby pond. Why do you think they grow to mean so much to her? What is the significance of the coots to this story of a marriage?

17. Japanese art plays a significant part in the novel. What does it represent to Margaret? How does it tie Margaret to the Kimura family?

18. At several points in the novel, Margaret gets a glimpse of how others see her. But how does she see herself? Is her self-image more or less accurate than Andrew’s?

19. Re-read the passage on page 273, about Dora’s reflections on human beings, birds, and freedom. What is Margaret’s reaction? How has Dora changed in the course of the novel? How does this compare to the ways in which Margaret changes?

20. Is Pete the great love of Margaret’s life? What effect does he have on her and the decisions she makes? If Andrew discovered the truth of this relationship, would he feel as wronged by her as she feels by him?

21. Why does Andrew denounce the Kimuras and Pete? Does he have an ulterior motive?

22. Do you think Andrew’s reports are taken seriously—is he responsible for the Kimuras being arrested, or was their fate inevitable given the time and place? Does Andrew’s behavior add a new dimension to your understanding of the World War II internment?

23. On page 294, when Margaret tells Andrew that The Gift is a picture of Len Scanlan, what does she mean?

24. At the end of the novel, Margaret recounts to her knitting group a hanging she witnessed as a young girl and can recall in detail. “I do remember it now that I’ve dared to think about it,” she tells them. “There are so many things that I should have dared before this” (page 318). What do you think she means by this? What do you think of the last line of the book: “And her tone was so bitter that the other ladies fell silent.” What is the significance of the hanging to Margaret’s story, to her life, and to “her” book?

25. What do you take away from the story of Margaret’s entire life? How does this novel compare to accounts in nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels that center around women’s lives?

26. Jane Smiley has revealed that the characters of Margaret and Andrew are very loosely based on “my grandfather’s much older sister [and] her husband, an eccentric family uncle...infamous in the physics establishment.” Yet most of the story’s details are fictional. Does knowing this change the way you see Margaret and her story?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

Plain Truth

Author: 
Picoult, Jodi

Not one to shy away from the tough issues that makes her novels so compelling, Jodi Picoult’s recent bestsellers tackled themes from sexual abuse to stem cell research to intense parent-child relationships. Her eager fans have come to expect hard-hitting topics, and Picoult never disappoints.

In Plain Truth, a shocking murder shatters the picturesque calm of Pennsylvania's Amish country—and tests the heart and soul of the lawyer who steps in to defend the young woman at the center of the storm.…

Moving seamlessly from psychological drama to courtroom suspense, Plain Truth is a triumph of contemporary storytelling. Jodi Picoult presents a fascinating portrait of Amish life rarely witnessed by those outside the faith—and discovers a place where circumstances are not always what they seem, where love meets lies, and where relationships grow so strong they can transcend death. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. Must "like the patches that make up a quilt," Picoult deliberately brings together in a single narrative two starkly different and often clashing cultures and ideologies; she highlights the tensions between them, and also underscores their inherent similarities. Discuss Picoult's writing style. What techniques does she use to establish the novel's tone, to develop her characters' oft-concealed motives, and to achieve this overall "quilt"-like effect?

2. Critics have suggested that what makes Picoult such a unique and effective novelist among contemporary writers is her firm grasp of the delicacy and complexity of human relationships. How is this quality particularly apparent in Plain Truth?

3. Furthermore, like precious few novels today, Picoult's books thoughtfully contend with the significance and mechanics of spirituality in an increasingly secular culture. In fact, USA Today observed that what makes Keeping Faith [a previous Picoult bestseller] especially remarkable is the way it "makes you wonder about God. And that is a rare moment, indeed, in modern fiction." Could the same be said of Plain Truth? Explain. What aspects of this novel particularly resonated with you?

4. How would you describe this novel to a friend? Is it a suspense novel? A love story? A legal thriller? An exploration of modern culture and morality? A study of human psychology and character motivation? What makes Plain Truth stand out among contemporary novels? To what degree does Picoult refresh or even redefine the various fictional genres with which this novel might be associated?

5. Identify the narrative techniques Picoult employs to draw you into Katie Fisher's plight. Why do we care so much about her? How does her specific situation come to touch upon such timeless and universal issues as community estrangement and forbidden love?

6. How accurate is it to say that, as readers, we approach this novel in much the same way Ellie approaches Katie's case: as aliens to the Amish lifestyle, and as onlookers painfully unsettled by the horrendous crime with which Katie is charged?

7. What kind of man is Aaron Fisher? As you were reading, what were your reactions to his choices? What motivates him? If we had to, how could we make a case for defending Aaron's code of life, his propensity to put the community above the individual? What compels him to adhere so strictly to the laws and traditions of the Amish faith, even when it means severing all ties with his only son?

8. On the face of things, Sarah Fisher appears to be a woman willing to submit wholly to her husband's word and will. Does this assessment bear out in the end? Looking back through the novel, identify the subtle clues and telling bits of dialogue which Picoult lays out to lead us toward Sarah's astonishing revelation at the end of the novel. What does motherhood finally mean to Sarah Fisher?

9. "You know how a mother would do anything, if it meant saving her child," Sarah tells Ellie. And earlier on, ostensibly referring to her ability to butcher chickens without remorse, Sarah pointedly tells Ellie, "I do what I have to do. You of all people should understand." What is Picoult up to here? Why would Ellie in particular understand this?

10. With which characters in Plain Truth do you most closely identity? Why?

11. Reread the epigraph that opens the books. Why do you suppose Jodi Picoult chose to begin with this particular Amish school verse? In what ways does it speak to the central tension which drives Plain Truth—the tension between the strictures and codes of Amish life and those of the American justice system (and, by proxy, of American culture writ large)?

12. How does Ellie's role as Katie's defense attorney become blurred with her role as a sort of surrogate mother to Katie? And what is being intimated when Ellie, after insisting that Katie's case "isn't about me," privately admits that she "wasn't telling the truth"? Is Katie's case, in a certain sense, very much about Ellie? Explain. What bearing does Ellie's childlessness initially have on her relationship with Katie, and on her approach to the case? How does the dynamic between these two women shift once Ellie discovers she is pregnant with Coop's child?

13. "We all have things that come back to haunt us," Adam Sinclair tells Katie at one point. "Some of us juts see them more clearly than others." Discuss the ways in which the ghosts of past events come to haunt the present action in Plain Truth. Of all the book's characters, who would you say finally come to "see" things most clearly? Ellie? Jacob? Sarah? Explain.

14. One of the primary "ghosts" of Picoult's storyline is the specter of Ellie and Coop's ill-fated affair back in college. What happened back then? How has the experience colored and complicated Ellie's life choices, whether personal or professional, ever since?

15. In continuation with the previous two questions, consider other "ghosts" from the past which haunt and presage the novel's present action. For instance, how does Jacob's decision to leave the farm and family to pursue life as a secular scholar bear directly upon Katie's plight, particularly in light of her estrangement from her father and community? And what is the legacy, brought to bear during her stay in Paradise, of Ellie's previous track record as a defense attorney committed to attacking her cases with a sort of "by-any-means-necessary" ethos, regardless of guilt or innocence? To what degree would you say Jacob and Ellie, in the course of this novel, are liberated from their pasts?

16. Imagine an alternate telling of this story in which instead of Ellie, it was Katie or Sarah relating her experiences to us in the first person. How would it have colored our perception of events?

17. What are the central themes of Plain Truth? What does Picoult seem to be saying about notions of tradition, family, religion, and community in modern life?

18. What did you learn about Amish life in reading this novel?

19. Ellie Hathaway is a protagonist who finds she must come to painful terms with the choices she has made in life. Even when we meet her at the start of Plain Truth, she appears to be in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Unpack the emotional baggage underlying her ordeal. Describe the extreme change Ellie undergoes in the course of her stay on the Fisher farm. What effect does the intimate relationship she forges with Katie have on her sense of self, and on the way she approaches her role as a defense attorney?

20. How do Ellie's perceptions of faith and prayer evolve during her stay at the Fisher farm? Discuss the scene that finds Ellie kneeling with the family to recite the Lord's Prayer. What is going on here? In a community "where sameness was so highly valued," where submission to a higher power is paramount, what happens to Ellie's previously unquestioned ideas and/or hang-ups about professional success, motherhood, commitment, and emotional dependence?

21. What kind of future so you see for Ellie and Coop? For Katie and Samuel? Jacob and his Plain heritage? Sketch out a hypothetical epilogue that takes place five years after Ellie's final conversation with Sarah at the close of the book.

22. Discuss the significance and layered meanings behind the title of Picoult's novel. For instance, in the realm of this story, is "Plain truth" a different sort of truth than "plain truth"?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Psychological fiction