Browse Reading Guides

Reading Group Guide

  1. Book ImageLili: A Novel

    Abigail De Witt

    "Lili's hold on a reader will be no less ferocious than her grasp on life."—Susan Dodd, author of Mamaw

The Author on Her Work

When I was growing up, my family traveled back and forth between North Carolina and France every year. My mother, a French physicist, taught at the University of North Carolina and in the summer ran a physics institute in the Alps. It was the early 60s, and when my sisters and I arrived in Paris every June—stumbling out of a Whisper Jumbo Jet full of air-hostesses in pill-box hats, and into the gray, wet dawn—it seemed we were entering another universe. Forty years ago, France was poorer, still stunned by two world wars, and its culture was old and uniform: all families ate the same meals, all schools followed the same curriculum, all children wore navy blue.

From September to May, I wore flip-flops and orange flowered bell-bottoms; I ate peanut butter and jelly twice a day. In the taxi from the Paris airport to my grandfather’s apartment, I looked out at the beautiful, narrow streets, the dark shop grates being rolled up, and longed for bright, hot sidewalks and the looseness of American voices.

My grandfather was horrified by us; our clothes were garish and our French mangled. In his darkly furnished drawing room with its dozens of porcelain figurines, he greeted us with dismay. So brightly colored, so sleepy, so apt to confuse our articles, we were a disappointment to many of our relatives.

But I had a great aunt, a tiny, fierce, chain-smoking woman who taught history and had a severely retarded son, who adored us and we her. She ate canned food and she never corrected our grammar. Before we arrived, she would search everywhere for ketchup so that we would have something familiar to eat and the first time she saw my orange-flowered bell-bottoms, she exclaimed with delight, “A gypsy!”

She was frightening, too, her voice so rough from smoking that she often sounded angry, her arguments with her husband loud enough for all to hear. And like all old people, she seemed unfathomable. I could not imagine what in the world she might think about, or if she felt the things I did: loneliness, excitement, longing.

Still, I was fascinated by her, and I never ceased trying to imagine her emotional life. Lili is a fictional character, but she is the result of those years of fascination, of the desire to know another as I know myself.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does the novel’s opening scene introduce the main themes of the book?
  2. In what ways is Lili’s childhood epiphany (“then it came to her for the first time that she was alive”) a religious experience? In what ways is it not?
  3. Discuss the role of hunger in the novel. In what ways are hunger and faith repeatedly linked?
  4. Why do you think Pierre could not talk about his fiancée?
  5. When Lili decides to have Claude sleep between her and Pierre, she notices that the child serves as a barrier against Pierre. Find and discuss other passages in which De Witt gives metaphorical significance to the physical aspects of domestic life.
  6. Compare Lili’s two experiences at Mont Blanc: the childhood sunrise and the evening many years later.
  7. During one of the nights when she and Paule lie together naked but cannot touch each other, Lili thinks how “there was no difference between her [own] longing for Pierre and Paule’s for God. Each was a kind of infidelity and each was hopeless.” What does she mean by that?
  8. What is so significant to Lili about the butcher?
  9. What do you make of the fact that Lili is abandoned by everyone except her family, those “eternal, elastic arms” she so desperately wants to escape?
  10. Why does Lili stay with Pierre?
  11. What is the difference between Paule’s faith and Lili’s? How does that difference play itself out in the novel’s ending, with Paule admitting that “I haven’t seen God in years” and Lili buoyed by a sense of rejuvenation?
  12. After the deaths of Claude-Francois and André, Lili obsessively visits Claude-Francois’s memorial. It is André’s death, however, that proves harder for her to deal with. Why?
  13. At one point, Lili, speaking to Claude, describes her love for him as “pure” because “I expect nothing from you—no answer.” What does she mean by this? What is the significance of purity for her?
  14. In a similar vein, discuss the novel’s last paragraph in light of the Colette epigraph.

About Abigail De Witt

Abigail De Witt, the recipient of a Michener fellowship, has published short stories in Salamander, The Journal, and Carolina Quarterly. She lives in North Carolina.

Books by Abigail De Witt

  1. Book CoverLili: A Novel

    "Lili's hold on a reader will be no less ferocious than her grasp on life."—Susan Dodd, author of MamawMore