Reading guide for Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean

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Becoming Strangers

By Louise Dean

Becoming Strangers
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2006,
    320 pages.
    Paperback: Jan 2007,
    320 pages.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Becoming Strangers is a notably assured, engaging, and perceptive debut novel about two married European couples on holiday in the Caribbean. In telling their separate and combined stories, in revealing their backgrounds and orchestrating their interactions, Louise Dean has crafted a “delicately powerful [and] impressive” account (Sunday Times, UK).

After more than half a century of marriage, Dorothy and George are embarking on their first journey abroad together. Three decades younger, Jan and Annemieke are meanwhile taking their last, as illness and incompatibility bring their unhappy union to an end. Initially, the luxury of an island resort is no match for the well-worn patterns of domestic life. Then the couples’ paths cross, and a series of surprises takes place—a disappearance and an assault, most dramatically, but also a teapot tempest of passions, slights, misunderstandings, frustrations, and small awakenings that punctuate a week in which each pair struggles to confront what’s been keeping them apart.

A hit with readers and critics alike in England, Becoming Strangers is a different kind of love story, and maybe a different kind of story altogether. For in Dean’s sharp and authentic account there is seldom a happy ending, but there is—more honestly, more accurately—sometimes a chance to redeem a life half-lived.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Compare George and Dorothy’s relationship with their kids to that which Jan and Annemieke have with theirs. Also, compare their respective marriages, their distinct but similarly flawed unions. Given all the spite and friction they exhibit, why have these two couples stayed together so long? (Recall, for instance, George’s observation: “You couldn't tell him that there was any marriage that wasn't equal measures love and hate.”)

  2. What causes Dorothy to wander away from the resort, to walk all the way to a village in a different part of the island? And what did you make of the depiction of Dorothy’s “illness” in these pages? Was it realistic or contrived, accurate or simplistic, moving or hollow? Defend your views by citing the text.

  3. Early on, while enjoying pizza and beer at the bar, Adam remarks in passing that “Americans don’t like second-hand smoke.” To which George replies, with a sigh: “Everything’s got to be new with them.” How are Americans portrayed in this novel? On the whole, do you agree with this portrayal? Why or why not?

  4. “It’s a different world, today,” Jan says to George in chapter 11. George replies, “It is, but people don’t change, do they?” Do you agree with George? Are modern people essentially the same as people of the previous centuries, or are we somehow fundamentally different? Which answer does the novel ultimately choose? Explain.

  5. “My theory,” Annemieke tells her husband Jan at one point, “is that you have a feminine attitude to sex and I have a masculine.” What does she mean? And do you agree with her? As this novel progressed, did you come to empathize with her affairs with Bill, Adam, and André? Why or why not?

  6. Describe the “brush with evil” that Jan had in Belize, as recounted in chapter 31. What happened to him there, and how did this experience change him? Also, elaborate on how (if at all) revisiting this experience brings Jan closer to his wife.

  7. What sort of invitation does Jan receive in chapter 47 from Laurie, the beautiful woman from Hong Kong? What does this offer entail, and why do you think she extends it? Does Jan accept it, finally? Why does or doesn’t he?

  8. This book is set in and around a lavish resort on a Caribbean island. Little wonder, then, that two important conversations in Becoming Strangers center on the idea of paradise—what it is and what it feels like. One such dialogue is in chapter 35, the other in chapter 54. How does—or how would—each of the primary characters in this novel define paradise? And how (if at all) does the novel itself answer this question?

  9. Discuss how religion—especially Christianity—is exhibited here, from Dorothy’s notion that “if Jesus was around these days, we’d never notice him” to Bill Moloney’s assertions that “[being Christian] means trying to bring God into the center of everything I do” and “Christians are the worst for knowing what to do.” Also, paraphrase the miracle Bill describes in chapter 38. Does this event seem genuinely miraculous? Explain.

  10. A book reviewer for London’s Daily Mail praised Dean’s “keen take on clothes, mannerisms, and surroundings.” Discuss what each of Dean’s key characters talks, acts, and looks like—how each seems to the outside world, and how each actually feels. If you were to cast a film version of this book, who would you assign to the various lead roles?

  11. What book is Jan secretly reading, concealed within the jacket of a work on European civilization? Why is he hiding this book? Who is he hiding it from? What finally causes him to set the book aside and return to his study of European history?

  12. Explore the theme of guilt—both individual and collective, acknowledged and repressed, and public (or societal) and private (or personal)—as a major component of this novel.

  13. What do we learn over the course of the novel about the native inhabitants of the island—how they live, work, worship, play? What does Steve Burns seem to think of them, especially those that work for him? For that matter, what does Burns seem to think of the resort’s clientele?

  14. Two written accounts appear within Dean’s larger novel: the notebook that Jan keeps throughout the narrative, and the memoir that George starts to compose in its final chapters. Describe how each expands, reflects, or otherwise comments on the concerns of this novel as a whole.

  15. The characters in Becoming Strangers comprise a sociocultural melting pot: British, Belgian, Chinese, Caribbean, and Irish (by way of South Africa). As one example, Laurie more than once employs the odd-sounding Hong Kong English expression “He is very true.” Discuss what you learned about these various nationalities, and about what these various nationalities think of each other, from reading Dean’s book.

  16. At least two characters in this novel have been profoundly affected by World War II: George, who served with the British Army in Italy, and Jan, who grew up in the Dutch countryside during the war’s immediate aftermath. How did the war change each of them? How did it shape their lives, and how does each look back on it? Discuss Dean’s book as an exploration or critique of the postwar European mindset.


    Copyright © 2005 Harcourt, Inc.

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