Reading guide for Louisa by Simone Zelitch

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by Simone Zelitch

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  • First Published:
    Aug 2000, 384 pages
    Dec 2001, 384 pages

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Is Louisa a love story? If so, whose love story?
  2. Louisa is narrated by Nora, who has no trouble revealing the interior lives of other characters, such as Gabor and Bela. How does Nora get access to this information? As she tells their stories as well as her own, are there certain aspects of their lives that she doesn't understand, or will not admit?
  3. In the camp for new arrivals, several of the Israelis express their disgust for the Holocaust survivors. What might be some of the sources of this attitude? To what extent is it consistent with other aspects of Israeli society as depicted in the novel?
  4. Why does Louisa follow Nora? At the novel's outset, she answers the question by simply saying that she loves her, an answer Nora finds unsatisfactory. What does this exchange tell us about Nora and Louisa? By novel's end, have Nora's judgments about Louisa become more complicated?
  5. Rabbi Needleman tells Louisa that wanting to help her mother-in-law is not a reason to convert to Judaism, and he encourages her to explore her life and see what has drawn her to Jews and ultimately to Israel. What do we discover about Louisa's motives for conversion? How does she understand Judaism? By the novel's end, has her understanding changed, and do her reasons ultimately fit the rabbi's criteria?
  6. Before the war, Bela asks Nora, time and time again, to immigrate to Palestine, but Nora consistently refuses to go despite her knowledge that anti-Semitism exists in Hungary. Given these circumstances, why does she remain in Budapest during the 1930s? Which of Nora's reasons seem unique to her own set of circumstances, and which seem true of other European Jews, such as Bela's sister and mother, who do not leave?
  7. When Nora first hears Louisa sing Gabor's composition, which includes words she had written to Bela, she feels a shock of recognition. She says, "I could not tell where those words ended and her voice began." Do Nora and Louisa have anything in common? What are the parallels and distinctions between Nora's feeling for Bela, and Louisa's for Gabor?
  8. Towards the novel's end, Louisa tells Bela her version of the story we have heard from Nora. In Louisa's version, she did not save Nora's life; in fact, Nora saved hers. Does this declaration have any legitimacy? How does Louisa's perception of events differ from Nora's?
  9. Louisa is, in some ways, a multi-lingual novel: Nora writes to her cousin and speaks to Louisa in German, converses with her compatriots in Hungarian, hears Janos address occupying Soviet soldiers in Russian, and, after her emigration to Israel, is faced with "incomprehensible" Hebrew. What associations do these different languages have for Nora, for Bela, and for other characters in the novel?
  10. Midway through the novel, Rabbi Needleman reviews the Book of Ruth, a story with strong parallels to Louisa's. How does familiarity with the biblical Ruth and Naomi change the way you read the story of Louisa and Nora? In what ways do the stories diverge? How does taking the point of view of Nora/Naomi change the tone and the content of the narrative?
  11. Consider the ambitions of Zionism as articulated by Bela and as put into practice by the original settlers of Kibbutz Tilulit. Why did these European Jews want to live in Palestine, and what sort of country did they hope to build there? To what extent, from Nora's perspective, are they successful? How does Bela's perspective on Zionism change in the course of the novel, and why does he ultimately choose to leave the kibbutz?
  12. In the novel's final line, Nora remembers Louisa insisting that Nora would eventually go to Palestine because "''s the Holy Land.'" She also recalls telling Louisa that there is no such place. Yet Nora leaves Janos to rebuild her life in the new state of Israel. How realistic are her expectations of that country, and of her cousin? Given that Bela marries Louisa, might Nora have been better off staying with Janos in Hungary?

Reprinted with the permission of Putnam Publishing.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Berkley Books. 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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