Some of my co-workers at the nursing home where I work have a book club and for a while, I was a member. We had this rule about not reading anything that anyone in the group had read before, so we mostly stuck to new releases and Oprah's picks, like A Million Little Pieces. Everyone in book club said it was their favorite read ever. I’d liked it too, so I felt personally lied to when it came out that James Frey had made all those horrible life details up. Who does that? I work as an assistant director in the memory care unit, so I know how hard it is for some people to remember their own lives. That James Frey could come in and just fabricate his own memories really rubbed me the wrong way.
After the James Frey scandal, I’d suggested to the book club that we pick something more old school, but nobody else agreed. I guess working with old people can affect you, make you long for something shiny and new. Then I bought my own house in a new neighborhood and I met Hazel, another single woman who lives on my block. We bonded pretty quick over the whole single-woman-homeowner thing, and I jumped the book club ship, so to speak, when she invited me to join her 20th Century Book Club. “Can we read titles we’ve already read?” I’d asked.
“Sure,” she’d said. “I was thinking it would be like revisiting the modern classics. Each month we can rotate who chooses the book, and when it’s your turn, you can pick whatever novel is your favorite, or if you’d rather, you can choose something you’d always meant to read but just haven’t gotten to yet.”
When I offered to host and pick the next book, I knew which way I wanted to go. Since we’re the “20th Century Book Club” that means we don’t read anything written before 1900. That ruled out my favorite novel since I was twelve years old, Pride and Prejudice.
I went with the next best thing, Bridget Jones’ Diary. I realized the risk; the book club ladies might consider it too lightweight, and therefore judge me as lightweight as well, but the novel is so clever and funny, and it established the chick lit genre, which is a big deal. I’m not especially literary; working in the memory unit is exhausting and draining and I don’t have the time or energy to pour over Proust when I come home at night. But I have always loved to read and I believe myself a decent judge of good writing. Helen Fielding is a GOOD writer - witty and complex, all at once.
Now, as the ladies in the 20th Century Book Club sit in my cozy living room, I tell them about a memory of mine - the weekend I discovered Bridget Jones’ Diary. It was shortly after it was first published, ten years ago, in May: the weekend of prom, my senior year of high school.
I wasn’t popular as a teenager. There’d never been a question about me having a date; I knew I would not. But there were some girls who I sort of hung out with, and they planned to go as a group and I’d planned to tag along. One of them, a self-styled mean girl with neither the clout nor the finesse needed to actually be popular, felt her stock would plummet if she associated herself with me. I was getting dressed, putting on the midnight purple taffeta ruffles I’d spent too much money on, when she called to tell me I wasn’t allowed to come along.
I couldn’t find my spine. I should have insisted that I could do what I want, that she didn’t own prom, and I would sit far away from her at Olive Garden, where the group of girls planned to eat beforehand. But I sucked back tears instead, and said fine. I didn’t want to go where I wasn’t wanted.
I couldn’t tell my parents; their pity would have been too much. So I let them take pictures of me in my dress, and then I pretended to leave for Olive Garden, promising I’d be careful and I’d be home by midnight. Instead, I drove to Barnes and Noble to browse the shelves. I found Bridget Jones’ Diary, and sitting crossed legged in my purple taffeta prom dress, began to read.
Nobody said anything to me. I’m sure I was quite the sight, dressed for prom and reading on the floor of Barnes & Noble. Anyone who noticed me probably figured I’d just endured a humiliation even worse than the one I was putting myself through now, so they gave me a lot of space. After a couple of hours I realized I was famished. I stood up, went and paid for the book, and then drove half a mile to Perkins. I sat in a booth and ordered eggs, bacon, and pancakes, and I stayed there for hours, reading and accepting refill after refill of my diet coke.
I walked through my front door at 11:55 to find my mom and dad waiting for me. “How was it?” my mom asked. “Did you have a good time?”
“It was brill!” I replied.
“Brill?” My dad asked.
“”Brill’ is short for brilliant, Dad.” I used an English accent, and then I quoted the novel directly. “You only get one life. I've just made a decision to change things a bit and spend what's left of mine looking after me for a change.”
Without any further explanation, I flounced off to my bedroom, fully embracing my newly liberated outlook. Now, ten years later, I still have a strong connection with Bridget Jones. We’re both what she’d refer to as “singletons.” We both could lose a few pounds and not be underweight. We can both be socially awkward and self-indulgent. And we both love Jane Austen and Mr. Darcy.
Now, the book club ladies peer at me, their heads cocked and chins tilted. It’s like they’re all trying to figure out how to respond to my random, TMI story when they thought we’d be dissecting chick lit. Febe is the first to speak. “Reading and sitting on the floor in Barnes and Noble in a prom dress is totally something I would do. I love it.”
We’re sitting around my long card table which I only brought up from the basement for this occasion. My tiny house has no dining room, so I set up at the table and every chair I own - including three plastic yard chairs - in my living room. Of course I spruced it all up a bit, with a tablecloth and mismatched-thrift store china bowls, but we had to sit at a table so I could serve vodka cocktails and blue potato leek soup. In the book, Bridget’s soup is accidentally colored by a blue ribbon she’d forgotten to remove from the vegetables. My soup is made blue from food coloring.
But the best part? I bought a package of oversized granny panties, or “knickers” as Bridget calls them, to use as napkins.
Hazel takes a sip of her soup and uses the underwear to wipe her face. “Wow, Leah. This is all so…” her voice trails off as she, unable to find words, laughs instead.
“Don’t worry!” I tell them all. “The underwear is fresh out of the package. I just thought it would be funny, using tropes from the book.”
Hazel, who is an English teacher, raises her eyebrows like she’s impressed at my use of the word “tropes.” Then everyone laughs, and it sounds deep-throated and not the nervous, unsure type of laughter that used to come at the book club I belonged to before. Maybe the vodka, my crazy party decorations, and the confessions from my youth are loosening everyone up.
“So what’d you all think of the book?” I ask. “And before you respond, let me just say if you didn’t read it and you watched the movie instead, I’m not judging you but you need to know that the book is way better.”
“I read it!” Kayla answers. “Usually I don’t like books that are written like diaries because I just don’t buy that someone would record entire conversations or such detailed descriptions of her day. But it worked in Bridget Jones.”
“It was nice to have some escapism after Handmaid’s Tale,” says Annette, “but I’m curious - is Bridget what modern single women are supposed to be like now?”
She scans all our faces, waiting for a response but nobody says anything. “Are you asking all of us?” I say.
“Well, at least the single women,” says Annette.
“So, Leah, Febe and Hazel?” asks Jessie.
“Not me,” says Febe. “I’d be banned from my culture if I drank and smoked the way Bridget does. And not Hazel either. She may not be married, but she’s definitely not single.”
I glance at Hazel and see her cheeks pinken. Hazel once confided in me about the dramatic events of her love life and how she wants to keep her relatively new relationship on the downlow. I speak quickly, trying to help her out.
“I have a lot of experience being single. Unlike Bridget, I don’t meet very many single men, unless they’re geriatric. I don’t smoke but I do drink, though not as much as she does.”
“Leah,” interjects Hazel, “you don’t need to tell us all this.”
“I don’t mind,” I say. “I’m an open book. Seriously. And I don’t see Bridget Jones as the way a modern woman should be, but I do like the idea that it’s okay to be flawed and to laugh at yourself, and have romantic ideals.”
I leave it at that. Maybe I’m not really an open book after all, since I don’t tell them about my Mr. Darcy - the handsome, charming but emotionally unavailable Dr. Peters, who works as a psychiatrist at the memory unit where I work. Every day I pine for him, and occasionally he throws me a wink or a smile, but mostly he keeps his head down, focused only on helping his dementia patients remember the important details from their lives.
Because who are we, without our memories? When I see him, I wish I could erase my memory of sitting in my prom dress on the floor of Barnes & Noble because nobody wanted me, except for the fictional characters I called my friends. Surely that meant he would never want me either.
Yet, I look at the faces of everyone sitting around my table, at these women who aren’t fictional, even though we’re bonding over fiction. Maybe we’re bonding over real life too.
“I agree with you,” says Hazel. "There's no way I'm letting go of romance, no matter how ridiculous I might become."
“Me too,” says Kayla, and then the others murmur their agreement as well.
I raise my cocktail glass. “Here’s to romance and to laughing at yourself.”
We clink glasses, and discussing Bridget Jones’ Diary is even better than reading it for the first time was.
Host your own 20th Century Book club and discuss Bridget Jones' Diary. Follow the link below for a reader's guide!
Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding - Reading Guide: 9780140280098 - PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books
To be honest, I don’t know why I offered to host the book club this month. It’s on Handmaid’s Tale because we’re on a dystopian kick right now, after reading Brave New World last month. When everyone said they wanted to read Handmaid’s Tale next, I offered to have the ladies over and to lead the discussion. At the time, I thought it would be a good idea to maintain as much control as possible. But that was crazy. I should have skipped book club this month altogether. You see, I have a history with this book. I was married when it first came out, but not to the man I’m married to now. And if I’d been living in the world of Handmaid’s Tale, as a citizen of Gilead, I’d have been hung by now for adultery and for murder, because twenty years ago, I had an abortion and then I had an affair.
It was 1985. Reagan was in office and the Moral Majority dominated society. The country was divided between the “Morning in America” crowd and the rest of us. It seemed like the Moral Majority’s voice was louder, I guess because there were more of them than were of us. They were the “majority” after all. The ERA had been defeated and feminism was experiencing a backlash. And there I was, a Japanese woman with only one child, a daughter whose birth had nearly killed me. I was married to Ken, a white man who thought I should be grateful, because if I was with him, maybe then I wouldn’t experience so much racism. It was only forty years post WWII, after all, which in the scheme of things, isn’t that long, especially when it comes to changing people’s attitudes against a population they’d thrown into internment camps only a couple of generations ago.
I wasn’t in love with Ken. Still, I thought I’d struggle along for the sake of our daughter, Tia. Then I became pregnant again, but the pregnancy was troubled from the start. I constantly had a fever and couldn’t keep any food down. After two months, the doctor determined it was an infection of the amniotic fluid, and too much damage had been done. I could continue with the pregnancy, but my baby and I were at an extreme risk, and he said I should terminate. It was the hardest decision I’d ever had to make, but the trauma of my first birth and almost dying was still fresh, and I needed to stay alive for Tia.
Ken didn’t understand. He said he would never forgive me. But I went with my doctor’s advice and got the abortion. Walking past the line of protesters who called me a murderer when I approached the clinic’s doors killed my soul. Afterwards I grew depressed and I needed a friend. Maurice was an EMT at the Mayo Clinic, where I worked as a nurse. He was there for me when no one else was, and after several months of leaning on each other, we fell in love. Knowing and loving Maurice helped me understand that with Ken, I’d been living a lie.
Maurice and I fell into an affair and I acted cowardly, keeping our relationship a secret and not coming clean. It’s just, I’d worked hard to establish the life I was living, with my career as a nurse at the Mayo Clinic, where Ken was on the board of directors. Maurice and I had to sneak around or risk losing our jobs. Worse though, I risked losing Tia.
Eventually Maurice and I were found out. I had to tell Ken because our secret would be revealed anyway. He didn’t take it well.
It was like everything was coming together and falling apart, all at once. I’d read about Offred’s experiences in this dystopian world, and they were scarily close to my own. Coworkers and neighbors who’d I thought were my friends shunned me for being an adultress. Maurice and I heard the racist slurs whispered at us, judgement for being a mixed-race couple, neither of us white. We both lost our jobs. Heck, we were practically driven out of town. It’s not like their were mobs chasing us with torches or burning crosses in our front yards, but our cars got egged and someone was constantly calling the cops on us, once because we had people over and were playing music (not even that loud) after 9 PM, and once because we hadn’t yet shoveled our sidewalk two hours after it had snowed.
But none of that compared to what Ken did. He told everyone I’d had an abortion and I was an unfit mother. He tried to keep Tia from me. A nasty custody battle followed and I was only saved by doing the one thing I had sworn I would never do: putting Tia on the stand and having her say she’d rather be with her mom. Eventually, Maurice and I moved from Rochester to Minneapolis, bringing Tia with us. Offred may have had no respite from Gilead, but we could at least find a more diverse place to live.
This time in my life was so long ago, but I think about it now, as the book club ladies settle in my living room, nibbling on the cheese and crackers I put out, and sipping their wine. There’s the obligatory chitchat, but I’m anxious to dive right in. Might as well confront this head on. “Tell me, Ladies, what did you think was the most oppressive part of Gilead’s society?”
Hazel, the founder of our little group, answers immediately. “Definitely not being allowed to read. I couldn’t imagine it.”
Leah, who, like Hazel, is in her early thirties, responds. “Seriously? I mean, not being allowed to read would be a huge deal, but to me, the constant rape, and not having your own name or identity, or not being able keep the children that you bore, or the threat of being hung for going against Gilead - that all would be way more oppressive than not being allowed to read.”
“I don’t see how you can separate it,” says Kayla. “There is no ‘most oppressive’ part. Just the fact that you could be hung for adultery or homosexuality…” she shakes her head as her voice trails off. “It’s horrifying. And something like that could happen here so easily.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” says Jessie. “Our country isn’t perfect, but I don’t think something like that could happen in America, at least not easily.”
“You really don’t think so?” Febe asks.
Febe is beautiful, smart, and so young. I remember her saying she’s from Iran, and I know from speaking to Hazel, who had her as a student and is now her legal ward, that Febe’s had a tough time and that her parents were involved in the Iranian revolution. The idea of the country she immigrated to becoming more restrictive than the one she escaped must be terrifying.
“Look,” I respond, trying to reassure Febe, “there is no way something like Gilead is going to happen here.”
“I disagree,” says Kayla.
“Me too,” states Leah. With her nose ring and bohemian vibe, she seems like the social protest type. “George Bush is constantly trying to insert God into government, and if he succeeds, what’s next? Women’s rights could be stripped away.”
“I suppose,” says Hazel, who, with a concerned look on her face, keeps glancing at Febe. “And I get what you all are saying about oppression.” She looks at me. “What do you think, Annette? You must remember when this book first came out? What did people think of it at the time? Did it seem realistic, or was it an outrageous nightmare?”
“Well…” I draw a deep breath. “Keep in mind, in the book, Gilead was precluded by the infertility crisis. People were panicked that the human race might die out, which is why the extreme restrictions against women were drawn, and in that scenario, I suppose they didn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.”
“Sure,” answers Hazel, “but what about real life?”
I draw a breath. “In real life, there was the AIDS crisis, and the beginning of global warming, and the threat of nuclear war. So I suppose back in real-life 1980s, none of what Gilead decreed seemed that farfetched.”
Febe speaks. “Then, why are you so sure that we could never be like Gilead in this country?”
I could tell her the truth. I could explain that I had to escape the conservative community where I lived in Rochester, after Maurice and I lost our jobs and I was shunned for being an adultress and for having an abortion. I wasn’t always sure we’d survive it.
Yet, we moved to a diverse neighborhood here in North Minneapolis, and we both found new jobs and we started over. Most importantly, I got to keep Tia. Was it easy? No. Was it possible? Yes. And more than that, it was worth it.
Leah speaks before I can form my thoughts into words. “Maybe it’s just how the book was written that makes it so plausible. Offred’s narration reads like she’s my best girlfriend confiding in me, and the revolution happens so gradually, I don’t know, I could see it happening.”
“Yeah,” says Kayla. “And the way women like Aunt Lydia fell in line and betrayed other women all seemed so plausible. I hate to say it, but I totally think under the right circumstances, that it could happen here.”
I find my voice. “You don’t understand,” I state “Twenty years ago, I was Offred. I lived in fear of losing everything, including my daughter. But I survived and I didn’t lose her, because no matter how bad things get here, there’s still way more hope here than there ever would be in Gilead.”
I have the ladies’ attention.
“Please Annette, if you're willing, tell us everything,” says Hazel.
So, I do.
Host your own 20th Century Book Club and discuss Handmaid's Tale. Find a book club reader's guide bookclubz.com/discussion-guides/the-handmaids-tale
Host your own 20th Century Book Club, and discuss Brave New World with these questions below:
1. Brave New World is a novel of ideas. How do the characters and the plot add to the radical ideas presented in the book?
2. Brave New World is supposed to be a Utopia. How would you define a Utopia? Do you think they're even possible, and if so, why does Brave New World fall short?
3. How does Brave New World satirize the present day? What particular vices and human failings does it target, and which characters embody these vices and failings?
4. Brave New World keeps asking how much it would cost to achieve the benefits of the new society. What are the benefits? Does Huxley think the price is high or low? Do you agree?
5. Discuss Huxley's attitude toward science. Does he think the brave new world uses it well? Does he think it's possible to use it well?
We have our second 20th Century Book Club meeting at the diner that my husband Tommy and I own. I’d offered to host, thinking I could treat the ladies to some fattening food and cheap wine, because who doesn’t like fattening food and cheap wine? Nobody in our little book club claimed to be above greasy carbs and merlot, so we settled on meeting at the diner at 7:00.
Tommy and I usually close the diner for business at 8:00, but tonight we closed at 6:00, to get ready. Now Tommy is back in the kitchen after bringing out a big platter of French fries, artichoke dip, and fried cheese sticks. We don’t normally serve our customers alcohol (since we don’t have a liquor license), but since we’re not charging and it’s a “private party”, Tommy and I broke out the box of Barefoot Red. But I told him that once we were all set up, he needed to go home. It was a girl’s night, and Tommy shouldn’t be around. “You’re welcome,” he’d responded sarcastically. I kept my sigh inside and let it go. Now Tommy is just cleaning up back there, and what sane wife could argue with that?
And I’m not nervous at all, until it hits me: all these greasy carbs and boxed wine is totally unsophisticated, and runs completely contrary to Brave New World, where it’s all about sleek surfaces, utility, and emotional detachment. Everything at our diner is always covered in a thin layer of grease no matter how hard we scrub it every day; the 1950s style Formica booths are charming but run-down; and the entire setting of the diner just screams of sloppy emotionalism. It’s the sort of place where you’ll laugh with your friends, or cry into a plate of pancakes while regretting all the decisions you’d made after partying the night before.
Hazel picks up a fried cheese stick, dipping it into the marinara sauce before shoving the cheese into her mouth. “Yum,” she says. “It’s so good. There’s no better invention than cheese.”
“I know, right?” says Leah, looking at Hazel and smiling in agreement. Then she turns to me. “Jessie, thanks so much for all of this,” Leah says. “I feel like a VIP, having this place all to ourselves.”
I shrug. “It’s nothing. I’m glad you like it though.”
They all nod, smile, and eat, though some eat more delicately than others. Annette chews her French fries slowly, one by one, and drinks tiny sips of her wine. Febe digs into the artichoke dip, scooping large amounts up with her spoon and scraping it onto the tiny slices of garlic toast that accompany the dip. She’s only just turned eighteen, so she drinks Mountain Dew instead of wine, and I wonder how she can handle that much caffeine past 5PM. I guess kids are resilient. And Kayla takes one fried cheese stick and breaks it off into little pieces before elegantly putting them between her lips. Kayla looks so fit though; I wonder if it’s been decades since she’s eaten fried cheese. Or maybe this is her first time?
“It’s just occurring to me now, that I should have done something to fit with the theme of the book.”
“Like what?” Hazel asks me. “Hold an orgy?”
“Or you could have served us some Soma!” Annette exclaims. “I was a young woman in the 1960s, back when everyone tried to get prescriptions for valium. That’s what Soma reminds me of. A drug that always makes you happy? Sign me up!”
Febe’s mouth drops open in shock, probably because she assumes little old ladies are supposed to be proper and straightlaced. The rest of us laugh.
“Totally!” Leah, with her patchouli scent, her dangly bracelets, the tiny, barely noticeable stud in her nose, and her super chill, accepting attitude, seems like the type who might enjoy recreational drugs now and then. “I love that in the book, the government not only mandates Soma, but they supply it to the everyone for free!”
Kayla furrows her eyebrows. “Yeah but come on! Soma keeps people from feeling any real emotions, and all citizens are required to take it. Imposing on civil liberties is not cool.”
“I agree!” Febe turns to Kayla. “Their whole society was so messed up, and not just the mandated drugs. None of it was natural. Think about the death centers and how they’re all born. And it made me so mad that only men could be alphas and alpha plusses. Talk about sexism!”
Febe is referring to the system the government in Brave New World set up. There are no natural births; all babies are genetically engineered to be of different intelligence levels. The super-smart Alphas are the leaders of society. Women can only be as high as Beta-plus. But everyone is designed to be happy with their station in life. Thus, Epsilons aren’t bright enough to be unhappy with jobs pushing buttons every day.
“The book is from the 1930s,” says Annette. “Of course it’s sexist.”
“It’s racist too.” Kayla states. “Didn’t you all notice that the Epsilons are dark-skinned? Only white males could be in charge.”
“Yeah, Brave New World was obviously written by a snobby intellectual white dude. But wasn’t it supposed to be ahead of its time in lots of ways?” Hazel directs her question to me. I was the one to choose Brave New World, after all. But I must inhale and brace myself before I can form my answer. I don’t teach high school English, like Hazel, and I was never an honor student like Febe, or highly educated like Kayla. As for Annette and Leah, I don’t know their stories, but they seem well-read. Meanwhile, the last book I remember reading from cover to cover (other than The Secret History, which was last month’s book club pick) was Brave New World. That was around twenty-five years ago, my freshman year of college, shortly before my life went crazy and I had to drop out. Of course, I read it again, just this week, to get ready for book club. There was a lot about it that wasn’t how I’d remembered it, but I guess that’s how it goes, when you revisit stuff from your youth.
“I think some of the ideas were ahead of its time,” I respond, speaking slowly. “Like the test-tube babies and all the free love. This was written long before the pill was even invented.”
“Hard to imagine, isn’t it?” Annette asks. “And that philosophy – ‘everyone belongs to everyone.’ That’s right out of the 1970s.”
Kayla cocks her head. “So, I know the whole book was a statement against a hedonistic society like the one in Brave New World, but what do you all think of that idea, that ‘everyone belongs to everyone’?”
“I think it’s the same as saying that no one belongs to anyone.” Hazel answers. “And that can’t be right.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Annette states. “Maybe we belong to each other for bits of time, but nothing is permanent.”
Hazel’s mouth turns down. “But I thought… haven’t you been married for over thirty years?” she asks Annette.
“Not exactly,” Annette answers, drawing out her syllables. “If you combine my two marriages, it adds up to over thirty years. But I’m not sure that I've ever belonged to someone else. Maybe I just spent too much time trying to maintain my own identity, to totally give myself to someone else, or maybe I’m just too selfish.”
I look past the faces of these ladies at the table where we sit, to the kitchen, where Tommy’s profile is barely visible. He’s standing at the sink, cleaning up the dishes we used to prepare tonight’s food. How much of our conversation can he hear? With the water running, probably not that much. I guess it depends on how much he’s trying to hear.
“Yeah,” I add. “I get that.”
The women look at me in surprise. I suppose from their viewpoint, Tommy and I seem like the perfect couple. He’s still handsome, he has a warm laugh, and he’s prone to give me affectionate squeezes when we’re out in public, which is often, since we own this diner and we work together. What the world doesn’t know, what they can’t see, are the secrets I hold, and all the regrets have. Sometimes I wish my life were like Brave New World, where there were no emotional burdens, or guilt, or obligation.
I open my mouth to speak, taking the plunge, hoping I don’t sound like an idiot. “I just think that the whole book isn’t so much a warning about the future, as it is this huge comment on how messed up human nature is. We’re selfish and we’re always looking for ways to escape pain or boredom, even if it means hurting others. So, in this society, they took hurting others out the equation, to the point where’s there’s no such things as motherhood anymore, and isn’t a mother’s love the most powerful force in the world?”
I realize as I say this that Annette and I are the only mothers in the room. “I wish it was,” Annette answers. “But I’m afraid it’s not. Because if it were, there wouldn’t be war.”
I feel the corners of mouth turn down, but I force them back up, speaking with a smile in my voice. “Come on, Annette,” I joke, “you’re making me question all my life choices.”
I say it like I’m kidding, but I’m not, at least, not entirely. I banked everything on the idea that sacrificing your identity is worth it, if you get love in return.
But nobody responds, not even Annette, though my comment was directed at her. The collective mood of the group has turned somber, which is not what I wanted. Time to lighten things up. “But what about those feelies? They were pretty cool, huh? And wasn’t Bernard a jerk?”
“They were all jerks,” Hazel answers. “Even John, who is supposed to be the hero, wasn’t a good guy, especially after what he does to Leena.”
“Yeah, but what exactly did he do? It was pretty unclear.” Says Kayla.
“It was clear enough to me,” Hazel answers. “He was lashing out because this ‘brave new world’ is so sexualized and bereft of any genuine emotion, and he hated being attracted to Leena but he blamed Leena for that and he punished her for being desirable, which is why so many real-life women get abused. The book really was very misogynist.”
I bite my lip and look down. Hazel hated the book. They probably all did.
She must read my expression because Hazel leans across the table and pats my hand. “Jessie, I still enjoyed it. It was interesting, and I can’t believe I’d never read it before in any of my college lit classes. I’d read lots of other dystopian books, like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Handmaid’s Tale.”
“Ooh,” Febe breaks in, “we should read Handmaid’s Tale next. I’ve heard it’s great!”
“Yeah, it is,” Hazel says. “but it’s super dark. I guess most dystopian novels are. That’s the thing about Brave New World: I know it’s supposed to be a cautionary tale, but it’s so glossy and hedonistic. I could see a lot of people, given the choice, preferring the society in Brave New World to our own, where we have war and poverty and messiness.”
“And that’s why I like the book,” I respond. “I read 1984 in the same college class where I first read Brave New World. I had to drop out before we got to Handmaid’s Tale, but it was on the syllabus, and I’d read its description. Anyway,” I continue, inwardly smacking my forehead for admitting to being a college dropout, “I think books that make us question ourselves and our world are the best kind of books. Everybody knows they don’t want Big Brother and the terror in 1984, nor do they want an oppressive government like Gilead from Handmaid’s Tale. But ask people if they want to live in a world without guilt or pain, with unlimited drugs and sex, where everything and everyone is beautiful? Lots of people would, even if it meant that their life had no meaning.”
“I wouldn’t,” says Febe.
“Me neither,” says Annette.
So, there you go; the youngest and the oldest members our groups have their priorities straight. Leah, Hazel, and Kayla all chime in, agreeing that they wouldn’t want that life either, but it took them a moment too long and I’m not entirely sure I believe they wouldn’t go for the sexy, drug-fueled, painless existence.
But what I ought to be figuring out is, would I?
These questions are published by Penguin/Random House, about The Secret History, by Donna Tartt. You can find these questions and more information about the book here
1. Richard states that he ended up at Hampden College by a “trick of fate.” What do you think of this statement? Do you believe in fate?
2. When discussing Bacchae and the Dionysiac ritual with his students Julian states, “We don’t like to admit it, but the idea of losing control is one that fascinates controlled people such as ourselves more than almost anything. All truly civilized people–the ancients no less than us–have civilized themselves through the willful repression of the old, animal self” (p. 38). What is your opinion of this theory? Are we all attracted to that which is forbidden? Do we all secretly wish we could let ourselves go and act on our animal instincts? Is it true that “beauty is terror”?
3. “I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone’s life when character is fixed forever: for me, it was that first fall term spent at Hampden” (p. 80). Did you have such a crucial interval in your life? What/when was it?
4. In the idyllic beginning it is easy to see why Richard is drawn to the group of Greek scholars. It is only after they begin to unravel that we see the sinister side of each of the characters. Do you think any one of the characters possesses true evil? Is there such a thing as true evil, or is there something redeeming in everyone’s character?
5. In the beginning of the novel, Bunny’s behavior is at times endearing and at others maddening. What was your initial opinion of Bunny? Does it change as the story develops?
6. At times Bunny, with his selfish behavior, seems devoid of a conscience, yet he is the most disturbed by the murder of the farmer. Is he more upset because he was left out of the group or because he feels what happened is wrong?
7. Henry says to Richard, “My life, for the most part, has been very stale and colorless. Dead, I mean. The world has always been an empty place to me. I was incapable of enjoying even the simplest things. I felt dead in everything I did. . . . But then it changed . . . The night I killed that man” (p. 463). How does Henry’s reaction compare to that of the others involved in the murder(s)? Do you believe he feels remorse for what he has done?
8. Discuss the significance of the scene in which Henry wipes his muddy hand across his shirt after throwing dirt onto Bunny’s coffin at the funeral (p. 395).
9. List some of the signs that foreshadowed the dark turn of events. Would you have seen all the signs that Richard initially misses? Or do you believe Richard knew all along and just refused to see the truth?
10. Would you have stuck by the group after learning their dark secret?
11. The author states that many people didn’t sympathize with Richard. Did you find him a sympathetic character?
12. What do you make of Richard’s unrequited love for Camilla? Do you feel that she loved him in return? Or did she use his love for her as a tool to manipulate him?
13. Do you feel the others used Richard as a pawn? If so, how?
14. What do you feel is the significance of Julian’s toast “Live forever” (p. 86)?
15. The author mentions a quote supposedly made by George Orwell regarding Julian: “Upon meeting Julian Morrow, one has the impression that he is a man of extraordinary sympathy and warmth. But what you call his ‘Asiatic Serenity’ is, I think, a mask for great coldness” (p. 480). What is your opinion of Julian?
16. Do you think that Julian feels he is somewhat responsible for the murder of Bunny? Is that why he doesn’t turn the group in when he discovers the truth from Bunny’s letter?
17. What causes Julian to flee? Is it because of disappointment in his young protegees or in himself?
18. While the inner circle of characters (Richard, Charles, Camilla, Henry, Francis, and the ill-fated Bunny) are the center of this tale, those on the periphery are equally important in their own ways (Judy Poovey, Cloke Rayburn, Marion, and so on). Discuss the roles of these characters.
19. The rights for The Secret History were initially purchased by director/producer/screenwriter Alan J. Paluka (All The President’s
Men, The Pelican Brief), and they are currently with director Scott Hicks (Shine, Snow Falling on Cedars). What are your feelings about making the novel into a movie? Who would play the main characters if you were to cast it?
20th Century Book Club is about a fictional group of women, discussing real (fictional) books. Every month you'll see the story of their book club meeting, plus you'll have access to the book information and reader's guide if you'd like to do your 20th Century Book Club. Scroll all the way down to see the cast of characters and their profiles!