Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Guide
The discussion questions and other material that follow are intended to enhance your groups conversation about Adam Hasletts debut novel, Union Atlantic, a deeply absorbing and accurate vision of American history as lived in our modern gilded agethe first decade of the twenty-first century.
About This Book
At the heart of Union Atlantic lies a test of wills between an ambitious young banker, Doug Fanning, and a retired history teacher, Charlotte Graves, who has suddenly begun to hear her two dogs speaking to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X. When Doug builds an ostentatious mansion on land that Charlottes grandfather donated to the town of Finden, Massachusetts, she determines to oust him in court. Drawn into the intensifying conflict is Nate Fuller, a troubled high school senior who unwittingly stirs powerful emotions in both of them. As a senior manager of Union Atlantic, Doug is orchestrating the banks elaborate gamble to remain at the head of the pack. And it is Charlottes brother, Henry Graves, the president of the New York Federal Reserve, who must keep a watchful eye on the financial giant and its effects on the entire financial system.
The opening chapter puts Doug Fanning at the center of a real event in July 1988: the U.S. Navys shooting down of an Iranian passenger jet, killing all 290 people aboard. Why might Haslett have chosen to give his protagonist this particular backstory? How is Dougs past navy career related to his present one in finance, and how is the historical moment of 1988 related to Americas later involvements in Iraq (p. 28687)?
The plots central conflict results when an ostentatious mansion is built in a wealthy Boston suburb next to an old colonial house. Charlotte Gravess house is "the physical form her opinion of the world had come to take" (p. 19697). What does Dougs house express about his opinion of the world (pp. 11416)?
Charlottes dogs speak to her in the voices of Cotton Mather, the Puritan preacher, and Malcolm X, the black activist. Why might these two outspoken figures be chosen as Charlottes constant companions?
What are the emotions that motivate Doug Fanning? What traits are lacking in his character? To what degree is Dougs present character rooted in his family history, as described on pages 4651 and elsewhere?
Several of the novels major charactersNate, Henry, Evelynhave recently lost someone close to them; Charlotte has been mourning her lover Eric for years. Why does the emotion of loss play such a powerful role in this story?
Charlotte, an idealist who does not seem well equipped for the world that surrounds her, has been fired from her job as a history teacher. Do you find her admirable? Or does she come across as an irrelevant crank, a person out of touch with reality? What does it mean that her sense of time is "porous" (pp. 165, 325)?
Doug watches as "workers clicked away at their screens . . . until they no longer noticed the bargain struck between meaningless days and whatever private comforts theyd found to convince themselves the meaninglessness was worth it. But it was different if those workers were your muscles and tendons and by your will you directed their exertion, regulating the blood of cash. Then you werent an object of the machine. You were something different: an artist of the consequential world. A shaper of fact. Not the kind of author Sabrina wanted to besome precious observer of effete emotionbut the master of conditions others merely suffered" (p. 191). What does this passage say about Doug, and about power as it is expressed in the workplace?
When Charlotte states her reason for refusing to move and for her legal suit against Doug, Henry admits to himself that she is "close . . . to the height of her powers" (p. 203). Do you agree that Charlotte needs to take a stand against "whats going on in this country" (p. 202203)? Does the novel suggest that it would be better if more Americans felt as passionate about their principles as Charlotte does?
The Fourth of July party given by the Hollands gathers together most of the characters in the novel, including Nate and his friends. What is the image of American wealth that emerges here, and what is most effectively satirical in the way Haslett has constructed the event (pp. 22159)?
Evelyn Jones thinks of Henry Graves as "an old-schooler," "a man who sounded as if he meant what he said" (p. 223). He believes in the meaning of words, in the public trust. On a moral spectrum, what is his position in the novel? Does the prosecution of Doug Fanning imply that the interests of the public trust are still being served? Or is the social vision of the novel a pessimistic one?
How does Nate explain to himself the meaning of his desire for Doug Fanning, and the fact that he is willing to betray Charlotte for him (p. 265)?
The monetary system, Henry says to Evelyn Jones, is "all anchored to nothing but trust. Cooperation. You could even say faith, which sometimes I do, though its certainly of an earthly kind" (p. 278). What is Evelyn Joness role in this system of trust, cooperation, and faith? How does she overcome the temptation to betray it? How is her brothers death connected to her decision to tell Henry Graves about the cover-up at Union Atlantic (pp. 27980)?
Haslett does an extraordinary job of showing how the monetary system works, and how a once local bank like Union Atlantic can become a conglomeration of dangerously unstable financial "products." What do you find most illuminating about the novels focus on money and banking?
Dougs mother and Nates mother are both single parents. Why does Doug decide to go and visit his mother? How are Doug and Nate similar to each other, and why might Haslett have chosen to show their situations as parallel?
What do you think of Charlottes relationship with Nate? She asks him, "Can you trust the pulse of life without becoming Mr. Fanning? Because he is the future. . . . His kind of rapaciousness, it doesnt end. It just bides its time" (p. 263). Is Charlotte right about Doug, given Dougs treatment of Nate? Does the end of the novel, with Doug in Iraq, confirm Charlottes opinion?
Charlotte sets fire to her house when she loses her case against Doug and realizes that she is also losing her mind. Why is it significant that she starts the fire by pouring gasoline on her books and sits to watch the flames engulf her bookcases (pp. 32627)? What does the scene suggest about the American culture that Charlotte represents?
Reviewer Ron Charles wrote that Adam Haslett "may be our F. Scott Fitzgerald, an author capable of memorializing our crash in all its personal cost and lurid beauty" (The Washington Post, February 10, 2010). What is most effective, for you, about the way Haslett has conveyed what its like to live in our economically and ethically troubled times?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center e-newsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com.)
James Baldwin, Another Country
Don DeLillo, Underworld
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
Michael Lewis, The Big Short
Frank Norris, McTeague
George Saunders, "Adams" in In Persuasion Nation
William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
Jane Smiley, Good Faith Andrew Ross Sorkin, Too Big to Fail
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor Books.
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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