Reading guide for Innocence by Jane Mendelsohn

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Innocence

A Novel

By Jane Mendelsohn

Innocence
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2000,
    208 pages.
    Paperback: May 2001,
    208 pages.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Introduction

An electrifying follow-up to her bestselling I Was Amelia Earhart, Jane Mendelsohn's Innocence is a modern gothic coming-of-age story, a devastating x-ray of American culture, and a piercing exploration of the inner life of a teenage girl growing up in New York City. Narrated with incisive wit by fourteen-year-old Becket, the novel traces her relationship with her widowed father, her encounters with the intimidating Beautiful Girls at school, her attraction to the mysterious and dangerous school nurse, her attachment to the raffish Tobey, and a series of devastating nightmares that threaten Becket's life as she moves from girl to woman.

Mendelsohn has written an allegory about the precarious state of the American teenager in a culture that sucks the life force out of its young, who are nurtured by movies and fantasy and narcissism rather than by values such as honesty or love. This is a world as startlingly original and hauntingly familiar as our dreams, where the line between fantasy and reality, between sanity and insanity, is razor-thin. Playful, frightening, profound, and gripping, Innocence is that rare thing--a page-turner with the depth of poetry and the immediacy of cinema.

Discussion Questions
  1. Toward the end of Innocence, Beckett says, "What matters isn't whether something is real. What matters is if it is true." What do you think she means? What might the difference be between a "real" story and a "true" story? What do you think the author wants you to believe about this story?

  2. Beckett's relationship with Pamela is complicated by her need for a mother figure and conflicting fear of losing her father. Discuss the way in which her feelings change when she starts menstruation. Does this event bring her closer to Pamela? Is her relationship with her father affected? If so, how?

  3. As Beckett matures physically, she becomes more beautiful. But she also begins to suffer dark visions and bleak thoughts. What do you think Mendelsohn is implying about the relationship between youth and innocence/maturity and worldliness? How else does she demonstrate this theme in the book?

  4. As narrator, Beckett maintains an ironic tone. Does this make her appear more credible, or less?

  5. Beckett seems to believe that the pills she is given weaken her hold on reality. Discuss the roles that medication and altered states of mind play in Innocence. What do you think the scene at the water fountain suggests about teens and antidepressants?

  6. Since Innocence is narrated by a teenager, it may not be surprising that there are no good adults in this novel. Even Beckett's father betrays her. Discuss the implications of this. Does the author suggest that the common "us versus them" mentality of teens results from a lack of understanding by adults?

  7. Beckett is haunted by foreboding dreams. Discuss the relationship between these dreams and Beckett's reality. Can you tell where one ends and the other begins, or is it confusing? How does this affect your reading of the story?

  8. "There's a character in every horror movie who doesn't die. She's the survivor, the Final Girl." What does Beckett mean when she describes herself as the Final Girl on page 7? What do you think it says about teen culture and values?

  9. Mendelsohn's writing is full of startlingly fresh imagery. Discuss how she uses this imagery—for instance on the opening and next-to-last pages—to reflect Beckett's state of mind and character development.

  10. Throughout the novel, Mendelsohn alludes to classic works of literature and film (from Alice in Wonderland to Rosemary's Baby). How does Mendelsohn use these references to comment on contemporary teenage life? Discuss the role movie imagery plays in the novel.


For information about other Penguin Readers Guides, please call the Penguin Marketing Department at (800) 778-6425, email at reading@penguinputnam.com or write to them at: Penguin Books, Marketing Department CC, Readers' Guides, 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014-3657

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Riverhead 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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