Discussion Questions

These questions contain plot spoilers!

1. Cate’s memories of John are fluid, shifting in and out of focus and becoming abraded by time. She questions if this means her love was somehow flawed. Why do you think some memories remain crisp, while others blur and seem to dim with each dawn?

2. Cate speaks of memories as a shield against loneliness and despair. Like armor, they’re “initially so shiny they dazzle and in time acquiring the patina of use.” Do you agree? Are there particular memories that have been your armor in life?

3. How does the life path of Cate mirror that of Miriam Rosen? Can the guilt Cate feels over John’s death be compared with a Holocaust survivor’s guilt?

4. Gaby does not initially tell her closest friends that she is dying. Knowing how her parents’ deaths shadow her life, do you think denying herself the comfort of friendship is a form of self-punishment?

5. Working as a home care aide, Cate wears the uniform of one valued more for what her hands can do than what her mind can imagine. Compare her initial attitude toward caregiving with Gaby’s toward waitressing. Both women come to view such manual labor as a form of atonement. Is this healthy?

6. When Helen describes growing up with her mother, the anger and resentment she felt toward Charlotte is obvious even though it was tempered by great love. How can we help friends and colleagues face the unique challenges of caregiving?

7. Rosa Vitelli, whom we meet only through the memories of other characters, often said that, “Life’s challenges are best confronted on a full stomach.” Compare this with Vincent’s outburst in the grocery when the sight of so much food disgusts and angers him. Could you relate to that scene? Have you had similar feelings after traveling or living overseas?

8. Cate’s book celebrates those who mother, marry, and mourn America’s warriors. For Cate, such women are the silent casualties of war. Do you agree that these sisters-in-arms need to tell their stories?

9. Sheila and Leah differ in their views of how war changes people. Sheila believes that the experience will bring to the surface what was always there, while Leah feels that what is life-altering can also change a person’s character. What is your view? Is war merely a crucible or fundamentally transformative?

10. After she understands Zelda’s medical needs, Cate asks why the woman isn’t in a place where she can be cared for. Helen points out that Amberley is such a place because Zelda’s friends keep an eye on her. Do you think a community coming together like that is a good thing, or should people like Zelda be in care facilities?

11. In comforting Cate after her first patient dies, Helen points out that the choices Lourdes Garcia made can’t be understood by those living in comfort. One implication of Helen’s words is that Lourdes was justified in compromising her ethics in order to survive. Can Lourdes be compared with Jan Schultz, the German-Polish collaborator Miriam wrote about?

12. Who do you think gave Cate Miriam’s journal entries? Why were they given to her?

13. The novel examines the Jewish concept of tikkun ha-olam – repair of the broken world – from many perspectives. How do the main characters affect repair of their community and themselves? Discuss, for example, Cate, Sheila, Gaby, Helen, and Father Sullivan.

14. The ring Judah Berkson made for Miriam was the gift of a dying father to the daughter he would never see become a woman. Consider the ring’s meaning to those who controlled its destiny: Miriam, the German officer who stole it, Jack Mitchell, Leah and Sheila’s mother, Sheila, Cate, Samuel, and, finally, Rachel.

15. Cate realizes that she may never learn the truth about John’s death. Ambiguity settles uneasily in her mind but she comes to accept it as the “new normal.” Could you live with such uncertainty?

16. After meeting Samir Falah, Cate cannot bring herself to expose his possible complicity in John’s death. In mirroring Miriam’s actions, did Cate do the right thing?

17. The town of Amberley is a central character in the novel. How does living in such an iconic small town contribute to Cate’s emotional journey?

18. At the end of the novel, Cate comes home to Amberley. Compare that scene with her arrival by bus in chapter one. Think about how the women of Amberley changed in the interim. Is Cate a catalyst for change much as Miriam was decades before?

© 2016, All Rights Reserved
Reproduced by permission of Kensington Publishing Corp.

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