Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Book
Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution for a new
start in the United States. Now he finds himself running a failing grocery store
in a poor African-American section of Washington, D.C., his only companions two
fellow African immigrants who share his bitter nostalgia for his home continent.
Years ago and worlds away Sepha could never have imagined a life of such
isolation. As his environment begins to change, hope comes in the form of a
friendship with new neighbors Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her bi-racial
- Mengestu opens the novel with Sepha and his friends, Joseph and Kenneth,
and the game that they play matching African coups with dictators and dates.
The three come from different parts of Africa, and have left different
places and people to be in the US. Why do they play this game? How does it
affect their relationships with each other? With the country they now call
home? With the continent they left behind? Though they are close friends
with a long history, why do you think that Joseph reacts the way that he
does when Sepha appears at the restaurant? What about Kenneth's attempts to
help Sepha figure out a way to keep from losing the store? How do their
differences help or hinder the narrative?
- In recalling his uncle's questioning why he had "chosen to open a corner
store in a poor black neighborhood," Sepha says that he had "never said it
was because all I wanted...was to read quietly, and alone, for as much of
the day as possible." Books play a huge role in Sepha's life as well as in
the action of the Mengestu's story. Did you feel that a particular literary
reference gave you a glimpse into Sepha's character that was unexpected or
surprising? Which one and why? Or if not, why not?
- Gentrification, class struggle, and ideas of democracy reverberate as
prevailing themes in the novel. How does Mengestu weave these themes into
the Sepha's interactions with Judith and Naomi? The race/class based
polarization of Logan Circle? Judith's career?
- As we learn in the novel, its title comes from a passage in Dante's
Inferno that Joseph believes to be "the most perfect lines of poetry
ever written." Why do you think Mengestu chose the title The Beautiful
Things that Heaven Bears? What parallels do you see between Sepha's
story and Dante's?
- Speaking of books, reading The Brothers Karamazov together
becomes a way for Naomi and Sepha to relate to each other, regardless of
their age and implied class differences. Why do you think he highlighted his
favorite passage (below) for Naomi, the one he memorized and "read out loud
to the shelves and empty aisles," writing "Remember This" in the margins of
his copy of the book?
People talk to you a great deal about your
education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is
perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him
into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good
memory left in one's heart, even that may sometimes be the means of saving
Do you think it is an attempt on Sepha's part to tell her some of his own
story through another's words? Why or why not?
- When he goes shopping for Christmas presents, Sepha strolls
optimistically throughout the city, finally feeling he has "the beginnings
of a life" in America. This optimism is shattered when he finds that Judith
and Naomi have left the city for the holidays. Why do you think Sepha's
optimism depends on having Judith and Naomi close? Are they the source of
his optimistic feeling? Why or why not? What about his thoughts that end the
novel? Why, despite everything, does the store "look more perfect than
ever"? How do you think his relationships with Judith and Naomi might have
changed his outlook? How might they have changed his relationship to
- How does death affect the Birdswell family? How does Herbert's death
affect them? Roger's death? The deaths of their childhood? Why do they
continue to be haunted by the ghosts of their past? In what ways does each
of these deaths change them?
- Although Sepha has been in the U.S. for seventeen years, he still seems
stuck between America and Ethiopia. Though he mentions going back to visit
his mother and brothereven at one point thinking of abandoning everything
in America to returnhe asks himself towards the end of the novel, "How long
did it take for me to understand that I was never going to return?" In an
interview, Mengestu theorizes that Sepha will never return to Ethiopia
despite his yearnings because "nostalgia and memory are all he has." Do you
agree? Why do you think he has stayed? Why has he never gone back?
- Letters appear frequently in the novel: His uncle Berhane's letters to
various politicians, Sepha's letter to Judith, Naomi's letter to him. How
does Mengestu use letters to further our understanding of those characters
in the novel who write and receive them? Though we never meet him except
through his letters, what do Berhane's letters reveal that might not have
been portrayed through a conversation or letter correspondence between Sepha
and his uncle? How does Berhane contrast with the other African immigrants
in the novel, namely Kenneth and Joseph? Why do you think that Sepha never
wrote back to Naomi?
- What is the significance of Mengestu's choice to set the story in the
nation's capital, Washington, D.C.? Do you feel that the city is a character
- Were you surprised to find that the brick thrown through Judith's
windshield and at Sepha's store, as well as the fire that destroyed her
house, were the acts of one man as opposed to a group of angry citizens
ignited by the evictions? How did you feel about the violence that was
directed at Judith and Naomi? About her reaction? What do you think will
happen to Logan Circle? To Sepha's shop? To Sepha himself?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Penguin.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.