Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
It is the year 1934, and in Whitfield, Ontario, Clara Callan bids a reluctant
farewell to her sister, Nora, who is bound for a career in show business in New
York City. In an era when people escape from reality through radio and movies,
and the growing threat of fascism in Europe is a constant worry, and when the
two sisters -- vastly different in personality yet linked by their shared past
-- try to locate themselves in the complex web of social expectations for
unmarried young women in their 30s.
While Nora embarks on a glamorous career as a radio soap opera star, Clara, a
strong and independent-minded woman, struggles to observe the traditional
boundaries of her small and tight-knit community without relinquishing her
dreams of love, freedom, and adventure. But Nora's letters eventually begin to
reveal that her life in the big city is a little less exotic than it may seem:
though her career is flourishing, her free spirit is curbed by a string of
unsuccessful personal relationships. Meanwhile, the tranquil solitude of Clara's
life is shattered by a series of unforeseeable events, turns of fate that
require all of her courage and strength, and that will put the seemingly
unbreakable bond between the sisters to the test.
Ultimately, both discover not only the joys of love and possibility, but also
the darker side of life -- violence, deception, and loss -- lurking just beneath
the surface of everyday experience. Winner in 2001 of Canada's two most
prestigious literary awards, the Governor General's Award and the Giller Prize,
Clara Callan is a mesmerizing tribute to friendship and sisterhood, romance and
redemption, written with powerful insight and passion.
- What does Clara reveal about her hopes, dreams, and fears in her letters?
How do her letters to Nora and Evelyn compare to her journal entries? What
kinds of information does she choose to keep private? What does she decide
- How would you describe Nora? In what ways does she differ from Clara? Do
these differences come across in their letters to each other? What do you
think explains their deep connection as sisters?
- What did you think of the epistolary form of narration of Clara Callan?
How did reading the constant stream of correspondence between Nora and Clara
facilitate your understanding of their relationship?
- Discuss Clara's sudden loss of faith in God. How does she make sense of
it? What is the attitude of her community towards her lapse in churchgoing?
How does Nora feel about it?
- How is sex outside of marriage portrayed in Clara Callan? What kinds of
romantic and sexual activity were available to "respectable" women
in this era?
- How does Clara deal with being raped? Did any of her revenge fantasies
- How is 1930s Europe portrayed in Clara Callan? What did you think of the
trip to Italy described in the book? Did it make any aspects of this era
- What is the significance of "The House on Chestnut Street." What
are some of the parallels between the radio show and Clara's and Nora's own
- What role does poetry play in Clara's day-to-day existence? What are some
of her poetic aspirations?
- How is Clara's unmarried expectant state received by her community? How
does she handle this development in her life? In what ways will the arrival
of Elizabeth Ann change Clara?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Harper Perennial.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.