Reading Group Guide
“A sublime and humane jigsaw puzzle of a novel.” —Boston Globe
The Author on Her Work
I like to think that traveling, which by its nature turns you into the dope who doesn’t know how things work, also makes you consider what’s incidental and what’s elemental. This book came out of brooding about just that. I’ve been to all the places used as settings here—to Asia in recent years, and to Sicily and Mexico in earlier times in my life. Nearly all the characters are invented, but I began the book after a trip to Vietnam and much thought about the time my older brother spent working there as a civilian during the war. I saw, as I wrote, that I was interested in the moments when people are lured or forced out of parochialism, which is the natural belief that reality consists of what a person knows already. My mother, like many mothers of her era, used to say, “You’re not the only pebble on the beach,” a point that turns out to be an ever-fresh insight, and more deeply necessary now.
- Vietnam, Thailand, Mexico, Sicily, and the U.S. all figure as settings. How do the different characters react to the experience of being foreigners? Whose responses did you admire the most?
- Notions of alliance and loyalty figure strongly throughout the book. Mike, in Allegiance listens to his kids talking at breakfast after their parents’ divorce—”They were like citizens of a country whose borders had changed.” How are families like countries? Where does this book make you see this, and which family borders seem most fixed, and which most shifting? Can countries be seen as behaving like families?
- What’s the role of romantic love in this novel? In Independence, Phoebe says her mother’s sense of “scale” means remembering all “the poor starving millions who’d be grateful for just a single spare moment to boo-hoo” over a lost lover. Do you think that a larger consciousness makes romantic problems seem smaller? Or is this a distorted view? For which characters is love the most important and how do they fare? How does the title relate to the dilemmas of cross-national lovers?
- In Paradise when Corinna is walking through Siam, remembering her childhood hikes in the Catskills, she thinks, “I began to think of each spot on the globe as a mere part, the section any lesson had to be broken down into.” Does the book’s division into parts help show this? Do you think the form of the book is successful? If it didn’t meet your expectations for a unified novel, what unities did you see in it? Where were you most surprised by connections? What was the effect of that surprise?
- Toby, in Envy struggles with a longing for solitude, although he is married to a woman he loves. How else does this longing figure in the novel? Is this a neglected craving of our time? Toby is not always happy to be so closely surrounded by his wife’s family—is his attitude especially American? How do his Thai relatives compare, for instance, to Nunzia’s Sicilian family? Some characters—Kit, Owen—improvise lives outside the usual forms of marriage or family. How do you see their choices and the results?
- Corinna, in Paradise criticizes her brother for his behavior as a colonial “boss.” Corinna is later troubled by how to act toward Siamese friends—”Thea likes it when we bring gifts when we go to Som’s. . . I don’t know how else we could behave, though I always wish I did know.” Is it impossible to behave well as a “colonial”? Where does this behavior have the most consequences? What is a “colonial”? How does Owen’s moral test, in the last chapter, play out against these questions?
- Are there characters you initially felt no sympathy for but later felt differently about? How did the shifts in point of view make this happen, and were there other factors? What was the biggest change you felt toward a character?
- Each character’s chapter covers a long span of time. And the novel as a whole moves through different historical time periods. How does the author manage these leaps and compressions of time convincingly? How did it make you feel as a reader to move through so much time? Is there a different sensation when finishing such a book?
- War is an element in parts of the novel—the Vietnam War, World War II, and the Patriot Act, linked to 9/11. Did these repeated images of war influence your final sense of the novel? How would the book have been different without them? How did you feel about the characters—and countries—who switch sides?
- Is a novel like this one, where different narrators tell different (but linked) stories, particularly right for our time? Have you noticed other books that are in a category between novels and story collections? Or films with several storylines? Do you think there will be more such works?
About Joan Silber
Joan Silber is the author of six previous works of fiction. Among many awards and honors, she has won a PEN/Hemingway Award and has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York City.
Books by Joan Silber
LONGLISTED FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD. “Emotionally, it’s astounding. ‘Linked’ doesn’t begin to describe the complex web Silber has woven. . . . Beautiful, intricate and wise.”—New York Times Book ReviewMore
Winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award: "Unqualified praise goes to this rarity: an extraordinary novel about ordinary people."--Chicago TribuneMore
Shortlisted for the National Book Award: "Joan Silber writes with wisdom, humor, grace, and wry intelligence. Her characters bear welcome news of how we will survive."—Andrea BarrettMore