Reading guide for Puppet Child by Talia Carner

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Puppet Child

by Talia Carner

Puppet Child by Talia Carner X
Puppet Child by Talia Carner
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2002, 260 pages

    Sep 2002, 260 pages


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Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

Talia Carner is available for guest appearances and book signings. She is also delighted to talk with book groups in person, if logistically possible, or by phone/email. Please mail her at

Reading Guide
  1. Rachel did not see a "red flag" in the fact that Wes did not visit his daughter from his first marriage. She regarded his fury over that situation as a sign of his love for that child. Should his behavior have tipped her off to his deviant personality? Is it natural for a woman in love, even an intelligent, sophisticated woman, to be taken in by a man’s charm and status?

  2. Throughout Puppet Child, Rachel makes several promises to Ellie, with the full intention of keeping them. ("Cross my heart and hope to die," and "No more Zoo Game"). Is it fair of Rachel to promise things that might be beyond her control?

  3. In an interview, Carner reported that she spoke with many mothers, who, broken financially and emotionally, their legal recourse exhausted, deserted the battleground. Their children remained with their abusers. In Puppet Child there is the shadow of Phil's mother as one such broken woman. Can you understand the choices mothers sometimes make? Could you shoulder the emotional and financial load of fighting for your child's safety the way Rachel did to protect Ellie? Would there be other, more effective means to protect the child?

  4. Dr. Wes Belmore is described as an upstanding citizen and a man dedicated to healing. Discuss the difficulties inherent in the favorable impression he makes on social workers and the judge. How different would the novel be had Carner not included the prologue in which Rachel-and the reader-actually witness the act of abuse?

  5. Was Rachel’s original lawyer, Chuck Bernstein, as effective as he could have been? In what way was her new lawyer, Erica Norgard, a stronger advocate for Ellie?

  6. Judge McGillian is a villain who does not mean to be a bad person. In fact, he sees a mission in dispensing justice and is certain he does good to the world by enforcing social mores. Discuss the evidence presented before him in the Belmore vs. Belmore case. Could he have ruled differently? Was his ruling of equipoise warranted? Should he have removed himself from the case as soon as he felt the political pressure?

  7. What ultimately affected the outcome of Rachel's case; Her defiance? Publicity? Public pressure? The change in lawyers? Political intervention? The change in judges? Was the final outcome Rachel's own doing or was she just caught up in the events? Would the outcome have been different had she taken another tactic-or none at all?

  8. Rachel's lawyer, Chuck Bernstein explains the court decision to disallow the testimony of Wes’s older daughter regarding abuse. "If you robbed a liquor store on Tuesday at ten, wearing a ski mask and carrying an Uzi, that doesn’t mean you were the one who robbed a liquor store on Wednesday at ten, wearing a ski mask and carrying an Uzi. That’s the law in its strictest sense." Please comment on the logic and practical application of this concept meant to protect a defendant from prejudiced jury or judge.

  9. Jacqueline is a devoted friend. Is she extending herself too much? What’s her motivation for doing so? Would you do this much for a friend?

  10. In this novel, Child Protective Services and the legal system come across as callous and chillingly neglectful. Is there enough supporting evidence to substantiate Rachel's despair of ever getting justice for Ellie? Do you know of instances of incompetent judges or incomprehensibly neglectful social services? Would you trust your child to either of these systems?

  11. In some states judges are appointed, while in others they are elected. Discuss the pros and cons and the inherent risks of each practice. Do you think that a lifetime appointment shields a judge from being influenced by political play as compared with a judge who must be elected every four or six years?

  12. In spite of Rachel's fears concerning Ellie’s reaction to strangers, Ellie seems to do well with some people. In addition to her grandparents and Jacqueline, she responds to Gerald and to her new teacher; she does not even hate her aunt who said she was "a brat." Is Rachel overreacting or is she overly protective of Ellie?

  13. Rachel encounters problems with her corporate boss. Do they stem from her attitude toward him, from her own personal difficulties, or from her failure to comprehend the corporate culture? Or is it the corporation--as represented by the individual operating within it--that is in the wrong?

  14. Phil’s heavy baggage is only hinted at as he enters the scene. Discuss his background and his motivation to work in Family Court. Is he reckless in his mission? Do you believe that all do-gooders are motivated by past traumas that fill them with compassion? Compare Phil's perception of justice and the Judge’s--their different point-of-views, their analysis of the facts, and the weight given to the evidence presented.

  15. Rachel’s boyfriend, Gerald, drops out of her life suddenly and unexpectedly. Does the explanation he offers when he returns make sense? Should Rachel have tried to understand his predicament and forgive him? Was his offer to be a father to Ellie and teach her to trust men generous enough to compensate for his previous behavior?

  16. Phil is nine years younger than Rachel, yet he manages to gain her trust and love. How does he change her? Is there a base strong enough to hold them together? Discuss their relationship and what each brings to it. Do you believe that the relationship between a younger man and an older woman is more likely to fail than one involving a younger woman and an older man, or is there no difference?

  17. Puppet Child features a cast of colorful secondary and minor characters, including David Lupori, Vince Carducci, Chuck Bernstein, Sylvia, Colby Albrecht, Josie, Howard, Russ and Lorena Rayner, Freda, Erica Norgard, and Dr. Hoffmann. Staying in Rachel's point-of-view, Carner uses sparse words to describe each of these players. Does her technique work in setting these characters apart? How do these characters--together and individually--contribute to the texture of the novel?

  18. Discuss the role of the media in affecting social and moral causes or in bringing them to the forefront of public awareness. Putting a name and a face on an issue sometimes makes it stand out more than more urgent causes. Is this fair? Is there a way around this imbalance of causes?

  19. In a tale of angst that is nearly unrelenting, Rachel finds the occasional moment of reprieve. In addition to the walk to the ice cream store and other relaxed times with Ellie, Rachel enjoys the tennis tournament, spending a weekend in Fire Island, strolling down the street in Chicago, laughing at the beauty industry ball and having rapturous sex with Phil. What role do these times play in the overall story? How do you perceive the total sum of these ups and downs of Rachel's life?

  20. In a surprise twist, the women in prison show compassion and solidarity with Rachel. Discuss their culture, their initial response to her, and their attitude toward Rachel when she leaves prison.

  21. Both Rachel and Lorena are mothers who sacrifice much for their children. Discuss the subconscious role model Lorena might have presented to her daughter. Discuss the dynamics between Rachel and Lorena also regarding Josie and what each must do. Which mother made the conscious ultimate sacrifice?

  22. Rachel was probably a giving person until she discovered Wes abusing of Ellie. She turned into a desperate parent whose focus was on her child. Relying on others to help her in her plight, she became a taker. How did that personality change affect her relationships? What was it that transformed her back into a giver? Were being a giver or a taker conscious choices, or were they reactions to pivotal events in Rachel's life?

  23. How genuine is Rachel's religious renewal? Can a person be only half-Jew or half-Catholic, adopting certain practices without embracing the entire theological package? Is it right to borrow spiritual comfort only in time of need? Do you believe that Rachel's rediscovery of her religious past will have a lingering affect on her? How do the tragic circumstances of her mother’s death tie in to this spiritual revival?

  24. What do you foresee in Rachel's future relationship with her sister, Josie? Can Rachel truly forgive her? Will Josie accept Rachel's compassion?

  25. It is often said that the purpose of a novel is to entertain. Puppet Child is considered to be a suspenseful family legal drama, yet parts of the tale are not "entertaining" in the traditional sense. Discuss your view of this argument.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Pagefree Publishing. 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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