Reading Guide Questions
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 devastationand
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
Americanafrom 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 revelationsfrom within as
well as from othersshe 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
- Why has Dorrestein titled her novel A Heart of Stone? How does the
novel breathe life into this stock metaphor? What roles do its elementsheart
and stoneplay throughout the book? What ironies are
involved in the fact that the literal heart of stone in the novel is her
- 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"?
- 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
- 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?
- 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?
- In what ways does A Heart of Stone show the progression from
magical thinkingEllen'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 sinto a
more rational understanding of why things happen as they do? How have wrong
interpretations kept Ellen trapped? How does arriving at more accurate
interpretationsabout her mother, her father, and
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
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