Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
- Flora begins, "There are things we can't undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life." What "regrettable acts" is Helen referring to? How does she try to make her remorse
"constructive" and "of service to life," in telling the story of her summer with Flora?
- When Flora begins, Honora "Nonie" Anstruther is already dead, yet we get to know her intimately throughout the novel. In what ways do we become acquainted with Nonie's voice? What aspects of Nonie's personality are revealed through her loved ones' memories?
- Consider the descriptions of Old One Thousand, the Anstruther estate where Helen grows up. How does the house feel
haunted by its former occupants, including the Recoverers, Honora, and Lisbeth? What elements of decay contribute to the estate's creepy and isolated feel?
- Consider Helen's inheritances from her various family members. In what ways does she resemble her grandmother, her father, her mother, and even her cousin Flora? What personality
traits, positive and negative, does she owe to each of these forebears?
- Consider the few details Helen reveals about her adult life
as she recalls the summer of 1945. If she has written "a collection of stories about failed loves," what might her personal life be like? What might have caused her "breakdown and lengthy stay in
an expensive institution," and how has writing helped Helen reconnect with her past?
- Finn disagrees with Helen's low opinion of Flora; he says, "I think you are confusing simpleminded and simple-hearted." What does Finn mean by "simple-hearted?" Does this capture Flora more accurately than Helen's youthful opinion of her? Why or why not?
- "You've had such a strange childhood," Flora tells Helen. Why does Flora's observation upset Helen? In what ways has her childhood been "strange," and why might young Helen not recognize its oddness?
- Discuss the hints of the supernatural in Flora. What might explain the voice Helen hears while sitting in Nonie's car and walking down the driveway? What does Mrs. Jones's intimate relationship with her daughter, Rosemary, suggest about the
enduring relationship between the dead and living?
- Helen reflects on her game of "fifth grade" with Flora, "We were making up a game that needed both of us...But right here, right in here somewhere, in what we were making together, is located the redemption, if there is to be any." Discuss the ways that Helen and Flora collaborate when they play "fifth grade." What does Helen learn from Flora while they play, despite her assumption that she controls the game completely?
- Honora writes to Flora in a 1944 letter, "'Spoken word is slave; unspoken is master,' as the old adage goes." Why does Honora believe in the value of silence over speech? How has Helen inherited Honora's opinions about the spoken and unspoken? How does the novel itself tiptoe the line between secrecy and revelation?
- Two past scandals are revealed in Flora: Harry's teenage affair with a Recoverer named Willow Fanning, and
the identity of Harry's true father, Earl Quarles. How has the
Anstruther family kept these two events under wraps? How does the novel eventually reveal each of these secrets?
- Discuss the love triangle of Helen, Finn, and Flora. How does Helen become so emotionally invested in Finn? What fantasies overtake her when she thinks about him? What is the basis of the attraction between Finn and Flora? How does each react to Helen's jealousy and rage?
- Helen concludes about Flora, "I thought I knew all there was to know about her, but she has since become one of my profoundest teachers, thought she never got to stand in front
of a real class and teach." What lessons about life, love, and generosity does Helen learn from Flora? How does Helen react to
Flora's birthday gift of Honora's lettersuncensored, so Helen can "grow into them"?
- In the novel, the manufacture of atomic weaponry at Oak Ridge is called the "best kept secret in the history of the world"
Discuss the relationship between family secrets and war secrets in the novel. How does the secret history of World War II intersect with the Anstruthers' secrets?
- The day after Flora's death and the atomic explosion in Hiroshima, Harry and Finn both appear in the paper, "grouped beneath the caption LOCAL HEROES." What are the ironies of Harry and Finn's supposed heroism? What are the consequences of their
"heroic" efforts in the war and at home?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Bloomsbury USA.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.