Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
This book is about an art heist, or at least it starts out that way. What does Ben's theft suggest about ownership? Does anyone really own a work of art?
The novel incorporates the lives of two real artists, Marc Chagall and Der Nister. Are these portrayals fair? What are the limits of the artistic imaginationthat is, what are the limitations of each of these artists as they appear here, and what are the limitations of the book's portrayals of these artists?
Members of the Ziskind family seem to be deeply or even spiritually connected to one another. What kind of potential do families have in this novel, and what is required for them to live up to it?
Throughout the book, there are references to various ways that life mirrors art, which in itself is created from the experience or observation of life. Which takes precedence in the novel, art or reality? Which one defines what it means to be alive for these characters?
Much of the novel's plot is built upon historical events that are rarely explored outside of scholarly circles, such as the pogroms of 1919 or the Stalinist purge of Jewish cultural leaders. How much of this history were you aware of prior to reading the book? Are there reasons why certain historical events (World War II, for instance) are frequently revisited in novels and movies, while others, like these, have been popularly forgotten?
The novel's plot is rife with forgeries as well as other forms of deception, ranging from the forged painting to the plagiarized children's books to Cuong Thien Minh posing as a loyal interpreter to Sergei Popov pretending to be a friendly neighbor. What do these various deceptions have in common? For a deception to work, what is required of the deceiver, and what is required of the deceived?
The Rosalie Ziskind stories throughout the book are all adapted from Yiddish sources. What connections do these stories have to each other, or to the novel's main plot? Are there common themes among them?
A central question in the novel is one of trust. How does trust define the relationships between the characters, whether friends, relatives, lovers, or enemies?
Is there a life after death in this novel? For whom? How?
What happens to Ben and Erica at the end of the story?
What is the world to come?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of W.W. Norton & Company.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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