Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
A passionate and complex
theme throughout the book is the concept of a writer's imagination. "Eddie
O'Hare, who was doomed to be only autobiographical in his novels, knew better
than to presume that Ruth Cole was writing about herself. He understood from the
first time he read her that she was better than that" (p. 204). What role
does imagination, lack of it, even fear of it, play in the lives and careers of
the central characters?
Ruth, as a novelist, sees
books as inventions based on both borrowed and imagined experiences--not
necessarily personal ones. However, her best friend, Hannah, a journalist,
presumes that all novels are substantially autobiographical; she sees in Ruth's
books a "Hannah" character, who is the adventurer, as well as a
"Ruth" character, who holds herself back. Explore the ideas of fiction
and imagination and the autobiographical ingredients of writing.
What is the meaning and
symbolism of the "feet" photo? Why do you think it became kind of a
talisman for Ruth? What emotions does the photo evoke in you as a reader?
Discuss the humor and the
pathos of Ted Cole's oeuvre. What about the humor and pathos of Ted himself?
Where does Ted's true imagination lie--if not in his writing? Is Ted's real
talent--his passion, his art--the seduction of the prettiest and unhappiest of
young mothers? Doesn't Ted pursue his seductions as passionately as his daughter
will pursue her writing?
During that fateful summer,
Eddie, the aspiring young writer, found his voice. Marion gave him his voice.
"It was losing her that had given him something to say. It was the thought
of his life without Marion that provided Eddie O'Hare with the authority to
write" (p. 112). Discuss the life and writing career of Eddie O'Hare: his
brilliance when being truly autobiographical, and his mediocrity when it came to
believability in things that were "imagined."
When Ted tells Eddie the
"story" of Thomas and Timothy's accident, he tells it in the
third-person removed. "If Marion had ever told the story, she would have
stood so close to it that, in the telling of it, she would have descended into a
final madness--a madness much greater than whatever madness had caused Marion to
abandon her only living child" (p. 154). Examine the madness. Discuss Ted's
ability--and Marion's inability--to detach.
How is Eddie, who appears
as the most benign of characters, often the most powerful? For example,
beginning with the restaurant "fingerprinting" scene (p. 240), he
gives Ruth the gift of her past, of her mother, of other realities. How does he
open the door to her future?
Examine: "Ruth thought
of a novel as a great, untidy house, a disorderly mansion; her job was to make
the place fit to live in, to give it at least the semblance of order. Only when
she wrote was she unafraid" (p. 267).
Discuss the idea that the books
in Ruth's life and the characters in them were more fixed in Ruth's life than
the flesh-and-blood people closest to her--namely, her father and her best
Why do you think Ruth
decides to marry Allan? Why was he so safe? How was he different from her
"type" of man - a type that disturbed her so?
Discuss the theme of
humiliation in her novel-in-progress as well as Ruth's own unconscious quest for
humiliation. Examine the themes of women, humiliation, and control. In
Amsterdam, Ruth writes in her diary: "The conventional wisdom is that
prostitution is a kind of rape for money; in truth, in prostitution--maybe only
in prostitution--the woman seems in charge" (p. 338). What do you think of
Examine the scene after
she witnesses the murder. "At last she'd found the humiliation she was
looking for, but of course this was one humiliation that she wouldn't write
about" (p. 375).
Examine the powerful car
scene before Ted's suicide. As Ted is driving, Ruth reveals the shocking
incident with Scott. Her tale is one of degradation. Does it have the desired
effect on her father? What does she want? Was this scene about revenge--about
giving back the hurt done to her? Can matters of families, of love and hate (her
father is the one she most loves and hates in her life), ever really be
understood? Of course this scene mirrors the driving scene where Ted tells Ruth
the details of her brothers' death. Discuss.
What changes occur in Ruth
after she becomes a widow? How do these changes finally free her to fall in love
What kind of emotions do
you feel at the ending of the book? How have the characters of Ruth, Marion, and
Eddie found, in essence, their way back? How has Marion, through her books, come
to terms with her grief? When she reveals to Eddie that "grief is
contagious," is she effectively saying that her absence from her daughter's
life was the only way she could love her or the only way she could not destroy
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Ballantine 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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