Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
ABOUT THIS GUIDE
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for
further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your groups discussion of Mary Gaitskills Veronica
, which The New York Times Book Review
hailed as a masterly examination of the relationship between surface and self, culture and fashion, time and memory.
ABOUT THIS BOOK
Set primarily during the narcotic glitz and casual
cruelties of the 1980s, Veronica
traces the rise and fall of Alison, from teenager runaway in San Francisco to the runways of Paris and finally to a menial job cleaning apartments in San Rafael. But the novel is far more concerned with Alisons inner life than her outward trajectory. As she looks back over her life, Alison flows in and out of past and present, searching for meaning in the choices she has made, in the suffering that has come from those choices, and most of all in her friendship with Veronica, an eccentric office worker with AIDS who Alison meets while temping in New York. While Alison has been in many ways a prisoner to her beauty, exploited by photographers and agents, lured into the modeling world where she was manipulated, sexually used, and cheated out of her earnings, Veronicas relative ugliness has allowed her to run her own show. Veronica is unlike anyone Alison has ever metsocially awkward, fiercely contentious, exhibiting her own ideas on style. Their unlikely friendship drifts in and out of various levels of intimacy and distance,
but when Veronica contracts AIDS from her promiscuously bisexual boyfriend, Alison is the only one who does not desert her. And as Alison must deal with her own present illness and loss of stature, Veronica comes to haunt her thoughts more and more obsessively.
Ugliness and beauty, the ugliness that underlies beauty,
and the way each exerts a kind of magnetic attraction and repulsion on the other, is a major theme of the novel. Alison describes Veronica, with her ugly face, her proofreaders kither rulers, her box of colored pencilsher prissiness, which denied the shit of the world and so drew it down upon herself [p. 231]. Suffering comes down, with torturous intensity, on all the major characters of Veronica. But joy and gratitude move just under the surface of the narrative, looking
for a way in, as Alison gropes her way toward hope amidst the wreckage of her life.
In prose that is as sensual, musical, and richly metaphoric as any in recent literature, Mary Gaitskill offers an unflinching exploration of one womans journey from desolation to stardom and back again.
- What is the significance of the story Alisons
mother told her about the wicked little girl when she
was a child? In what ways does it function as a kind of
parable, or prediction, of Alisons life?
- Alisons narrative shifts between past and
present, or rather between several layers of the past
and the present. What effects does Mary Gaitskill create
through this method of narration? In what ways does it
mirror the way the mind and memory actually work?
- What kind of relationship does Alison have with
her parents and with her sisters? How do they view her
- Gaitskill often personifies music in Veronica:
music, lightly skipping in the main rooms, here bumbled
from wall to wall like a ghost groaning in purgatory
[p. 133]; Music fell out of windows, splattered on the
ground, got up, and walked away [p. 141]. Why does
Gaitskill emphasize music throughout the novel? Why is
music so important to Alison?
- Alison dreams of being a poet. In what ways is her
narrativein terms of its language and emotional
intensitysuffused with poetry?
- Veronica tells Alison: prettiness is always about
pleasing people. When you stop being pretty, you dont
have to do that anymore. I dont have to do that
anymore. Its my show now [p. 44]. How does Alisons
beauty enslave her? In what ways is Veronica more free
because she lacks such beauty?
- How does Alisons experience as a model affect
hermorally, emotionally, financially?
- What does Alison mean when she says that she
became a demon and was saved by another demon, who
looked on me with pity and so became human again. And
because I pitied her in return, I was allowed to become
human, too [p. 256]? Why would such a mutual pity
enable Alison and Veronica to regain their humanity?
What is the source of this pity?
- What does the novel suggest about the harsher
reality beneath the surface glamour of the fashion
industry? How do people treat each other in this world?
- How does Alison fall from modeling in Paris to
cleaning the photographers office in San Rafael? Is one
job more demeaning than the other?
- Why is Veronica so important to Alison? How and
why does Alisons relationship to Veronica change over
the course of the novel?
- What does the novel reveal about the early days
of AIDS? How do people react to Veronica when they learn
she has AIDS?
- Veronica is an exceptionally painful
novel, filled with sickness, cruelty, suffering, and
death, and yet it ends with Alison saying, I will call
my father and tell him I finally heard him. I will be
full of gratitude and joy [p. 257]. What has she
finally heard? What is she grateful for? Why does she
anticipate such joy?
Christopher Bram, In Memory of Angel Claire;
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking;
Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera;
Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City;
Proust, Remembrance of Things Past;
Edmund White, The Married Man.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.