Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
This reading group guide for The Memory Palace includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Mira Bartók.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 piano prodigy Norma Herr was well, she was the most vibrant personality in the room. But as her schizophrenic episodes became more frequent and more dangerous, she withdrew into a world that neither of her daughters could make any sense of. After being violently attacked for demanding that Norma seek help, Mira Bartók and her sister changed their names and cut off all contact in order to keep themselves safe. For the next seventeen years Mira's only contact with her mother was through infrequent letters exchanged through post office boxes, often not even in the same city where she was living.
At the age of forty, artist Mira suffered a debilitating head injury that left her memories foggy and her ability to make sense of the world around her forever changed. Hoping to reconnect with her past, Mira reaches out to the homeless shelter where her mother had been living. When she receives word that her mother is dying in a hospital, Mira and her sister travel to their mother's deathbed to reconcile one last time. Norma gives them a key to a storage unit in which she has kept hundreds of diaries, photographs, and mementos from the past that Mira never imagined she would see again. These artifacts trigger a flood of memories, and give Mira access to a past that she believed had been lost forever.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
The prologue describes a homeless woman standing on a window ledge, thinking about jumping. The author writes, "Let's call her my mother for now, or yours" (p. xiii) How does imagining a loved one of your own in that position change the way you think about the book? Does it help you connect or make the situation more personal?
Early in the book, Mira sees her mother for the first time in seventeen years. What is your impression of this hospital visit? What impact does it have on Mira?
While their mother is dying at the hospital, Mira and her sister Natalia go through their mom's storage facility. How did it make you feel to be with the two sisters as they rummaged through the collection? What discovered or rediscovered items touched you most and why.
On page 29, Mira says, "Memory, if it is anything at all, is unreliable." How does Mira's own unreliable memorya lingering effect of her auto accidentunderscore the schizophrenic mind of her mother? Do you think it helps her relate to her mother? Why or why not?
Mira turns to art as a way to express herself. On page 53, when she visits a Russian Orthodox Church with her grandfather, she sees the "Beautiful Gate" of painted icons and wonders: "Can a painting save a person's life?" Describe ways in which art is therapeutic in this book.
As an illustration of how memory can be unreliable, Mira explains that she vividly remembers seeing the Cuyahoga River burning in Cleveland in 1969, and then admits that she's almost certain she wasn't really there, even though the memory of the event is so clear. Can you think of things that are imprinted in your own memory (perhaps from hearing family stories or seeing images onscreen) even though you were not there? Do you think anyone's memory can be an accurate record of truth? Why or why not?
In Italy, Mira takes a job making reproductions of old paintings for tourists. She later learns that they are being sold as authentic antiquities. How does Mira react to this news? What deeper feeling does it evoke in Mira about her life in general? How does this discovery fit into the book's questions about authenticity?
After visiting their father's grave in the New Orleans area, Mira and Natalia decide to visit a state park. Their heads and hearts filled with emotion, they get lost along the way. But after they find the park and enjoy some peaceful time in nature, the road away from the park seems clear and simple. Describe the role that nature and meditation play in Mira's life and in this book.
On page 238, when Mira's husband William is in a fit of depression, Mira feels like "It's January in 1990 all over again." Compare and contrast Mira's characterization of her husband and her mother. How do her experiences with her mother impact the way she responds to William's depression?
At her mother's memorial service, on page 295, the director of MHS (Mental Health Services, Inc.) says to Mira, "I know of children who have abandoned their parents for much less than you two have gone through," but Mira wonders if she and her sister truly did enough. How does this book make you think about the obligations that children have to their parents? Are there limits to what family members owe each other?
Mira seems to regard the homeless people she sees on the streets a little differentlyas though any one of them could be a mother or father. She wants people to understand the "thin line, the one between their worlds and ours" (p. 297). Has this book helped you see the homeless in a different light? Why or why not? How has it impacted the way you think about mental illness?
Mira Bartók is a writer, poet, musician and artist. She is also a strong advocate for other writers, poets, and artists. She blogs about grants, fellowships, and opportunities for both the established and aspiring. Visit her blog at www.miraslist.blogspot.com. Are there any opportunities there you may want to explore? Share them with the groupand encourage your fellow readers to pursue their own creative interests.
The author wants you to understand how thin the line is between one world and anotherbetween what you may consider a "normal" life and a life on the streets or plagued with a mind or mood-altering condition. After reading this book, take a closer look at people you may ordinarily ignore. Look a homeless person in the eye and greet him or her with a salutation as you might any other person. If possible, try volunteering at a local homeless shelter, or better yet, your book club could volunteer as a group. Be sure to share and discuss your experience with your fellow book club members.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Free Press.
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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