Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
This reading group guide for The Mistress of Nothing includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kate Pullinger. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When Lady Duff Gordon, a member of the English social elite, comes down with a debilitating illness that requires exile to a dryer climate, she and her maid, Sally Naldrett, set sail for Egypt. Through Sally's keen and floral narration, Egypt is painted as a place of wonder - of luxuries and freedoms not afforded to native English women in their home country. But luxury, especially for a maid of a lower station, comes with a price. From a love affair with her faithful dragoman to the biting rejection from the woman she devoted her life to, Sally travels a road of little reward, and finds that even in motherhood and unerring service, she is the mistress of nothing at all.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
Why do you feel Lady Duff Gordon cast out Sally so harshly? Was she betrayed? Did she truly have an issue with propriety?
Following those lines of thought, why does she not treat Omar similarly? Why is she so certain that Sally "tricked" Omar into impregnating her?
Should Omar have stayed as loyal as he did to Lady Duff Gordon? Did he fail to protect Sally and Abdullah in the right way? To whom does he owe more loyalty?
Sally performs one more "treatment" on her Lady before she is cast out of the house. Would it have been easy, as she stated, to make the cut too deep? Was there a part of you that wanted her take that sort of action against her sick employer?
Discuss the relationships and interactions in Omar's father's house. How did you react to Sally and Mabrouka's growing friendship? What commonalities do you see between them? Should Omar have allowed Sally to live with his Cairo family?
By story's end, is Sally still an Englishwoman? Is she an Egyptian? Considering Abdullah and her position at the Nile hotel, is she still a "mistress of nothing"?
How did the Egyptian setting affect the mood and urgency of the story? Consider the trip up the Nile, the excursion to the Valley of Kings, the political uprising and spreading riots against the Pasha's Suez schemes, and the French House elevated above the struggling village of Luxor.
Why is Sir Alick put off by his wife's appearance and lifestyle when he finally visits her in Egypt? Is Lady Duff Gordon's family still indeed family?
Discuss the various members of and visitors to the Luxor household. Which did you enjoy reading about the most? Consider Omar, Ahmed, Mohammed, and Mustafa Agha.
Is life on the Nile a new beginning, or some form of afterlife?
Enhance Your Book Club
Visit (on your own, if you're like Sally) a local museum that contains Egyptian artifacts and exhibitions. Do any of the offerings evoke scenes or characters from The Mistress of Nothing?
Mimic a meal from the parlor at the Luxor house. Try sitting on the floor, eating pastries, and reclining after your meal.
A number of books have been written about the complicated relationship between an English servant and his/her employer. Read a comparable title like Remains of the Day and compare how masters and servants interact, how employees deal with their oppression, and how far removed the Lady or Sir is from their employee.
Read Kate Pullinger's My Life as a Girl in a Men's Prison. How do the themes and characters compare? Are there any similarities in tone between one of these short stories and the longer narrative in The Mistress of Nothing? Consider art, propriety, gender roles, passion, and crime.
If you have the means, brave the Egyptian heat and see how the locales in the novel look and operate in modernity.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Touchstone.
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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