Reading guide for A Heart of Stone by Renate Dorrestein

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A Heart of Stone

by Renate Dorrestein

A Heart of Stone by Renate Dorrestein X
A Heart of Stone by Renate Dorrestein
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2001, 256 pages
    Jan 2002, 256 pages


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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!


Like many of the most powerful novels written over the last thirty years, A Heart of Stone is a tender yet haunting coming-of-age story that explores the complex emotional legacy that family life bequeaths to the individual. But Renate Dorrestein offers a new and strange perspective by showing how even the happiest of families can both suffer and inflict terrible devastation—and how an imperfect and amazingly strong girl manages to survive the most horrible of family tragedies while retaining both her sanity and her spark for life.

The van Bemmels do not seem to be dysfunctional in the ways readers of contemporary fiction have come to expect. In fact, they appear to be a normal, warmly affectionate, emotionally healthy family. Frits and Margje clearly love each other and their children; they've provided a secure and stimulating environment for their sons and daughters to grow up in. They seem unlikely candidates, therefore, to have visited upon them a tragedy worthy of Sophocles or Aeschylus. It is all the more terrifying, then, to absorb the shock of the calamity that is gradually revealed over the course of the novel. For twelve-year-old Ellen, it is almost more than she can bear. She suffers survivor's guilt, feels she "has no right to live," and, being the "cement" of the family, as her father had called her, she blames herself for failing to keep the family together.

The by turns harrowing and humorous story of how she frees herself from this guilt and forgives her parents unfolds with seamless grace in the dual time frames of past and present, as Ellen, pregnant and newly separated from her husband, reexamines her life. Promiscuity, alcohol, and many years of psychotherapy have failed to bring her peace but have certainly not dulled her spirit. But when she decides, spontaneously, to move back into her childhood home and to pore over the photographs in the family album, she makes an unconscious commitment to confront, and ultimately put to rest, the ghosts of her past. Half aware of what she is doing, Ellen pieces together the frayed memories of an idyllic childhood. She relives the idiosyncracies of her adored siblings, as well as her parents' news-clipping service with its decades of Americana—from Coca-Cola to Kissinger and Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon. But she also takes herself down darker passageways. In allowing herself to remember her mother's growing paranoia and delusion, her father's apparent passivity, and her own bewilderment and helplessness, she relives the nightmare that was visited upon her family. Inciting her to tell herself that she "really can't count on anybody, ever," and that she has to "harden her heart, for always," the rage, pain, and self-reproach such memories release nearly turn her into someone who feels nothing. But in the light of new revelations—from within as well as from others—she begins to rightly understand her past and be free from its grip.

Much of the power of A Heart of Stone comes from Dorrestein's exploration of how the stories we construct to explain our lives determine our lives. And in writing that is vivid, unflinching, and informed by a deep and precise understanding of the shifting human psyche, A Heart of Stone illuminates how getting the story right gives us the freedom to be who we really are.

Discussion Questions
  1. Why has Dorrestein titled her novel A Heart of Stone? How does the novel breathe life into this stock metaphor? What roles do its elements—heart and stone—play throughout the book? What ironies are involved in the fact that the literal heart of stone in the novel is her family's gravestone?

  2. Names and naming play a crucial role in A Heart of Stone. Ellen feels partly responsible for Ida's illnesses because she had maliciously suggested the ugliest name she could think of for her; she insists that "Carlos," not "Michael Adrian," is her youngest brother's name; she notes her father's instruction to his students, "Only that which is labeled can be retrieved"; and, at the very end of the novel, she asks Bas to pick a name for her daughter. Why is calling things by their right names so important to Ellen? Why is simply learning the name for her mother's illness so liberating? What is the implication of her deciding not to name her daughter "Ida-Sophie"?

  3. What effects does Dorrestein create by letting the reader know, early in the novel, that Ellen's family was lost to her but withholding the specifics about how and why until much later? Why would Ellen, as narrator, choose not to disclose this information? How does our gradual discovery of the family's "cataclysmic tragedy" mirror Ellen's own process of knowing and self-discovery?

  4. When Carlos is accidentally burned, he must spend several months in the hospital. By the time he returns home, Ellen had "no nails left to bite" and her "lips were chewed to shreds." She thinks to herself that "the fact that my little brother was still alive only meant that I could lose him all over again, a thousand times over, in a thousand diabolical ways. All things considered, it was better not to have a little brother at all." In what larger ways is A Heart of Stone about the anxiety and pain of loss? What other coping mechanisms does Ellen use, as an adult, to ward off anxiety?

  5. Ellen's parents ran a news-clipping service; her ex-husband is an architect specializing in restoration, which allows him to "give history a new lease on life"; and Ellen is a pathologist, "a doctor for the dead." Why has Dorrestein given her characters these occupations? What is the significance of Bas being a gardener? What is the novel as a whole suggesting about the relationship between past and present?

  6. In what ways does A Heart of Stone show the progression from magical thinking—Ellen's fear that if Ida dies it will be her fault because she named her, Margje's delusion that the fate of the world depends on her cleansing her family of sin—to a more rational understanding of why things happen as they do? How have wrong interpretations kept Ellen trapped? How does arriving at more accurate interpretations—about her mother, her father, and herself—free her?

  7. Why does Ellen decide to let go of the voices of her dead brother and sister, Kester and Billie? Why is this a necessary step toward her recovery?

  8. Ellen appears to buy back her old family home on a kind of whim. What are the deeper reasons for her returning to the place where tragedy struck her family twenty-five years before? What is the significance of her descent into the basement at the end of the novel? What does she discover there? What is the symbolic value of this moment occurring underground?

  9. A Heart of Stone tells the story of one woman's painful recovery from a devastating personal tragedy. But in what ways can the novel also be read as a commentary on the less extreme forms of grieving and forgiveness, self-knowledge and self-acceptance, that everyone must face?

  10. In the Epilogue, Ellen says that Bas "isn't a saint, by any means: if I rub him the wrong way too often, I'll lose him. We are just two people cautiously trying to make it work, like everybody else." Given what the novel tells us about these two characters, what do you think about the chances of their relationship lasting, and of Ellen moving from the feeling that she "had no right to live" to a happy life?

For more information about other Penguin Readers Guides, please call the Penguin Marketing Department at (800) 778-6425, email at or write to us at: Penguin Books, Marketing Department, Readers' Guides, 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014-3657.

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.

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