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  1. Book ImageThe Garden of Last Days: A Novel

    Andre Dubus III

    “So good, so damn compulsively readable, that I can hardly believe it.” —Stephen King, Entertainment Weekly

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some possible meanings of this book’s title? What various images and interpretations of “paradise” appear here?
  2. The characters believe their own version of the truth, and each truth seems perfectly plausible while we’re in the head of that character. Is everyone in this book (and outside it) susceptible to having false convictions? Is it possible for conflicting truths to exist at the same time?
  3. Children are central to this novel, and even though love between the parents is rare, the children are loved. How is the love between parents and children a touchstone for various characters in the book? How are motherhood and fatherhood represented?
  4. What is the effect of the author’s use of foreign words such as “nuhood”?
  5. Historical facts aside, what does the Florida setting bring to this novel? Could it have been set anywhere else in the country?
  6. How are the characters molded by their pasts? Do any of them escape their upbringing?
  7. How do you feel about the particular blend of fiction and history in this book? Should the author have strayed further from—or hewed closer to—the historical reality?
  8. The characters all seem to think highly of themselves. What does that say about the meaning of “self-esteem” and the value we place on it?
  9. How does social class affect the lives of the characters? Other “9/11 novels” center on the lives of the privileged, who no longer feel safe after the terrorist attacks. Here the characters (except for Jean) are on the economic edge. How does that shape the story and your response to it?
  10. The author has chosen to tell this story in alternating third-person points of view, but each third-person point of view is so close to the character that it makes you feel almost as if you were inside that person’s head. If the author had used first-person voices instead, would that have been too close for comfort? Does preserving a slight distance between the characters and the author make a difference in terms of where you place your trust?
  11. To what extent is A.J. a victim of circumstances, and to what extent is he the author of his own predicament? What about the other characters?
  12. What are the flaws and strengths of each of the characters in this book? Do they have anything in common?
  13. Sex is obviously important to every character in this book, along a spectrum from chastity to pornography and rape. Are there any happy sexual relationships? Why or why not? What are the various images of women, and is the “western” or “nonwestern” view of women more prone to objectification and violence?
  14. Are these characters shaped by their religious beliefs (or lack of them) or are their religious convictions shaped by their worldly experiences? What does this book have to say about religion?
  15. Could Franny’s abduction be seen as a parallel to the surprise attack on the United States? Both are “innocent,” “young,” “seemingly unaware.” Why do you think that Franny doesn’t suffer permanent damage and how does it play into the themes of the book?
  16. Why is it important to Bassam to know Spring’s real name? What does it mean to them when Bassam touches the scar from her caesarian? What is the reader to think of it?
  17. It is often said that fiction can reveal truths that nonfiction can’t express. Is that the case here?
  18. The central drama of this book takes place within fewer than 24 hours. The time line then stretches out, moving from individual psychology to a larger context, until we see each character in the light of actual historical events. Does that work for you? Why or why not?
  19. Is there redemption at the end of this story?

Andre Dubus III on Fact and Fiction in The Garden of Last Days

Like many other writers, I prefer not to talk too much about how a story came to be. On one level, after months or years of dreaming a novel, it is difficult to find the logic behind it, if such a thing exists. Creative writing is so often rooted in deep intuitive impulses and to look back and talk about them rationally feels to me unhelpful and even vaguely dishonest. But in The Garden of Last Days one of the main characters is a composite of the real 9/11 hijackers who did real harm to real people. It is only fair, therefore, that the reader have some idea what is factual in this novel and what is fiction.

In the weeks after that brutal September morning, we began to learn something of the hijackers. We learned that many of them had trained in Florida, that they’d been seen visiting strip clubs. This was confusing. How could these young men be self-described holy warriors but also frequent strip clubs? But what lingered for me even more than this was the image of cash on a bedroom bureau in Florida, money earned by a woman who’d danced for one or more of them.

I set out to write what I thought then would be a short story based on one of these women. But, as is so often the case with the writing of fiction, the story began to change from where I assumed it may go; other characters came in, other lives. Soon enough it became clear to me I was writing not a short story but a novel, one that wanted to be told from many points-of-view. One of these was Bassam al-Jizani’s.

For months and months, I tried not to write from his point-of-view. My resistance was two-fold: 1) In my novel, House of Sand and Fog, I had already written from a Middle Eastern man’s perspective, and while these are very different people—Colonel Behrani from that book is a secular Shi’ite Iranian military man of late middle age, while Bassam is a young Sunni extremist from Saudi Arabia—I still had an irrational fear of somehow artistically repeating myself. And, 2), I was not sure I was emotionally and spiritually up to the task of inhabiting the psyche of one based on those who did us such harm. In order to become this character, to try to capture him fully, I would have to withhold judgment of him. I was not convinced I could do this.

Over the years, however, I’ve found that if I can just get myself into an open and receptive state of mind, fueled by my own curiosity about who these people are and what may happen next, that is when the fiction itself begins to dictate what must stay and what must go. I had originally hoped that April’s time in the Champagne Room with Bassam al-Jizani is all we would need of him, but eventually the story began to insist—no matter how I felt about it—that this young Saudi have his own sections, that he be as much a part of the novel as everyone else.

I stopped writing and spent the next few months doing research. I read the history of Saudi Arabia. I read about Islam. I read the Quran. I read every reputable book published about September 11th. I spent time with an expert on the Arab world, and I interviewed a Palestinian woman who’d lived in Saudi Arabia. And I kept reading.

When I went back to the writing of this novel, I tried to be as loyal to historical fact as possible. The experience of Bassam al-Jizani is consistent with all that we know of these young men: the touchstones of their childhood, their disaffection, their drift into Islamic extremism, their actual training, vows to one another, and route from Saudi Arabia to the United States. While most of the names are fictionalized—Bassam al-Jizani is a name I made up but which is consistent with family names from the southwestern province of Saudi Arabia—those of Mohammed Atta and Osama Bin Laden are not. Atta was called Amir by close friends and family. Bin Laden’s men call him Abu Abdullah, which means Father of Abdullah, a common way to address a man in that part of the world, to call him the father of his oldest son.

There are many details in this novel that are historically accurate: these young men were seen in gyms and on mopeds on beaches in the same Florida towns depicted here; before leaving Florida just days before the attacks, they wired thousands of dollars back to Dubai; once in Boston, some stayed at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, the hotel in the novel. Others stayed across the Charles River in Boston, and two there are known to have hired a prostitute; the wording of the The Last Night comes directly from the actual document found in the hotel rooms left behind; and after the attacks, agents from the Sarasota office of the F.B.I. did interview some of the women who’d danced for these men.

I stayed loyal to the historical record here so that I could more deeply and honestly become Bassam al-Jizani. I had no desire to write about September 11th. But to write stories is to paint our dream world, to move through shadow. There is a saying from the ancient Chinese: “If the mad dog comes at you, whistle for him.”

—Andre Dubus III

About Andre Dubus III

Andre Dubus III is the author of The Garden of Last Days, House of Sand and Fog (a #1 New York Times bestseller, Oprah’s Book Club pick, and finalist for the National Book Award) and Townie, winner of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. His writing has received many honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Magazine Award, and two Pushcart Prizes. He lives with his family north of Boston.

Books by Andre Dubus III

  1. Book CoverDirty Love

    In this heartbreakingly beautiful book of disillusioned intimacy and persistent yearning, beloved and celebrated author Andre Dubus III explores the bottomless needs and stubborn weaknesses of people seeking gratification in food and sex, work and love.More

  2. Book CoverThe Garden of Last Days: A Novel

    “So good, so damn compulsively readable, that I can hardly believe it.” —Stephen King, Entertainment WeeklyMore

  3. Book CoverHouse of Sand and Fog

    The National Book Award finalist, Oprah Book Club pick, #1 New York Times bestseller and basis for the Oscar-nominated motion picture.More