Laurie Lico Albanese
For Book Clubs
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Discussion Questions for Hester
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. At the beginning of the novel, we are told about the unique phenomenon of synesthesia, which plays a major role in -. In what ways does Isobel’s synesthesia serve to propel the narrative forward?
2. Isobel's embroidery is an essential part of who she is, and allows her to express her internal creative process in a way the world values. Do you have a creative outlet or form of creative expression that is important to you?
3. Scottish myths and elements of the magical world run throughout the novel. How does Isobel's belief in magic and the spirit world change throughout the novel? What do you believe is real, or possible?
4. Early in the novel, Isobel’s Auntie Aileen says, “To clothe a woman is to hide her failings and frailties.” Throughout the novel, Isobel helps to clothe many women, including herself. Does Isobel take the same view towards clothing as her aunt, or is her approach more nuanced?
5. Examine the various positions and choices that women in the novel are given and have to overcome. What journey did each of these women take, and who do you think ultimately overcame the most?
6. On page 190, Isobel tells Nat, “Women want to read loves stories to know if a man is good, if love is true, who and what can be trusted.” Discuss the different men in Isobel’s life. In what ways is the truth of this statement revealed through Hester?
7. On page 252, Isobel asks herself whether Nat a cruel man or a weak man. By the end of the novel, what is your opinion on Nat’s cruelty or weakness? Is it possible for someone to be both?
8. Hester is a novel that imagines the inspiration for Hester Prynne, the heroine of The Scarlet Letter. If you have read The Scarlet Letter, does Isobel’s story resemble how you might have imagined this woman’s life?
9. Consider Isobel Gowdie and her legacy, as well as the legacy of the other women in Isobel’s family, including her daughter. Which of the women in the family do you think were the most influential? What do you think Isobel and Margaret’s legacy will be?
10. On page 313, Isobel says, “Like Nat himself, the book was a truth within a lie, and a lie within a truth.” Consider Nat’s personal journey and his relationship with Isobel. In what ways is this statement true?
11. How do you feel at the end of the novel? What do you think comes next for Isobel and Margaret in their relationship and their story?
Discussion Questions for Stolen Beauty
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. During Adele’s life, there’s an ongoing debate about which is more essential, beauty in art, or truth in art. What do you believe the primary aim of art should be? Why? Are beauty and/or truth integral to artistic works? Why, or why not?
2. Do you think Adele loved Gustav Klimt, or just the lifestyle he represented? Do you think Adele loved her husband? Discuss.
3. In retaliation to his critics, Klimt paints Adele as the heroic Jewish widow Judith. Do you think his response is effective? Why or why not? On page 78, Klimt claims, “There’s no solution in words. . . . The only answer is art.” What does he mean by this? Do you agree/disagree?
4. Throughout the book, sex and death are connected visually and in the characters’ minds. Find some passages that illustrate this connection. Why do you think this is a significant motif?
5. Both Maria and Adele must contend with the issue of faithlessness in marriage. What are the different messages the two stories provide? What do you believe is more important: fidelity, honesty, or freedom?
6. Another parallel in Maria and Adele’s marriages is the presence of double standards. How is each woman held to a different standard than her husband? What are the similarities and differences between the roles of women during these two generations? How do they compare to expectations for women today?
7. While reading, did you find yourself identifying more with Adele or with Maria? In what ways did you connect to them?
8. Discuss the role of national and religious identity in the book. What does it mean to Adele to be Jewish? What does it mean to her to be Viennese? How do these characteristics relate to each other? How does Adele’s relation to being Viennese or Jewish change for her over the course of the book?
9. In pages 214 to 216, Maria’s mother asks her if her children will be Jewish, and whether they will speak German, reflecting anxieties she holds about life in the Jewish diaspora. How does the book depict the impact of emigration on Maria’s family? In what ways do Maria’s relationships with Judaism and Vienna parallel or diverge from Adele’s?
10. Was there anything that surprised you about the book’s depiction of the Nazi annexation of Austria?
11. Maria consistently describes Ferdinand as devoted to his wife Adele, claiming “my uncle had never stopped loving her” (page 216). Where do you see the presence or absence of this adoration in the chapters from Adele’s perspective?
12. Maria admires her aunt Adele and strives to live up to her example. Are there figures in your family or life who you feel driven to emulate? Discuss.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. As a group, watch the movie The Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann. Afterward, discuss how the film’s depiction of Maria compares with that in Stolen Beauty. Are there aspects of the book that you wish had been portrayed in the movie, or vice versa?
2. For more information about Adele Bloch-Bauer and Gustav Klimt’s portraits of her, consider reading The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor, upon which the movie The Woman in Gold was based. Compare and contrast O’Connor’s nonfiction with Laurie Lico Albanese’s novelization of the Bloch-Bauers’ lives. What are the strengths and benefits of fictionalizing their stories?
3. A number of artistic movements and artists are referred to in Stolen Beauty, some in passing and some more deeply considered. As a group, look up the artwork of some of the artists and movements mentioned: the Impressionists, the Symbolists, the Secessionists, the Expressionists, Gustav Klimt, Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Rudolf von Alt, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, Carl Moll, Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet, or any others. Discuss your favorites. For any artists or movements discussed in the book that you weren’t familiar with, was their artwork as you envisioned while reading? How, or how not?
Discussion Questions for Blue Suburbia
1. Did you enjoy reading this memoir? Were you attracted to, or put off by, the format? Do you think it is important to read this book cover to cover, or could you pick it up at intervals and skip around? Would it lose it meaning or overall impact?
2. Laurie's father abused her as a child. By the end of the book, has she forgiven him? Have you?
3. What do you think happened to Laurie in "219 Maple Street? Are there other poems reflect on that incident?
4. The author tells us about the "jailhouse right across from my school." What significance does this have for her family? Do you think this had a traumatic effect on them?
5. In "Second Thing," what do you think Laurie is referring to with "forty pounds of flesh"?
6. As a child, Laurie seemed unable to win her mother's love. Before her mother dies, is this issue resolved for Laurie? If so, when? Do you have sympathy for her mother?
7. Who is Laurie's literary hero? Do you think it was important to her to identify with someone in that way?
8. In "I Wish," the author lies to the reader. Explain.
9. Who do you think "I Hid" is about?
10. Since this memoir is written in poems, did you feel there were any gaps in her history? Do you think her past experiences are amplified or diminished?
11. What are Laurie's fears? What does she always seem to be running from? Will she be able to confront her problems? Are people able to surmount their pasts or will they always be haunted by them?
12. Who do you see as the bully in Laurie's family? Her father? Her mother? Herself?
13. Discuss the author's sickness that she writes about in the section "Losing My Way"?
14. How did the poem "Once" make you feel toward the author? Can you relate to her feelings?
15. "Oh Boy" is about the author's son. What do you think he suffers from?
16. The author struggles with her own happiness throughout the book. Review "Ordinary" and "The Sirens" and discuss whether you think the author is satisfied with her life. Do her expectations prevent her from being happy?
1. What are the many "miracles of Prato" and why do you think the authors chose this title?
2. How is your experience of the novel enhanced (or diminished) by looking at the website documenting the restoration of Fra Lippi's Prato frescoes?
3. A woman's life in medieval and Renaissance Italy was largely limited to one of three roles: wife, nun, or prostitute. How is this reflected in the novel's female characters? Do you think Lucrezia successfully transcends these social limitations? Why or why not?
4. Why do you think Lucrezia ultimately decides to go with Fra Filippo and to allow their relationship to become sexual? Do you think the decision was wise? Moral? Inevitable?
5. The church was arguably the most powerful institution in Renaissance Italy. Discuss the importance of the church, both positive and negative, in relation to Fra Filippo's life and development as a man and as an artist.
6. Fra Filippo tells Lucrezia, "to paint is to pray." How do Fra Filippo, Lucrezia and Sister Pureza perceive and understand God differently? How does each express their faith?
7. Many important scenes unfold in the herb garden in the Convent Margherita. Discuss the meaning and symbolism of this setting. Consider Sister Pureza's wisdom in relation to her role as midwife and herb garden caretaker.
8. Is the convent a sanctuary, or a prison? For whom? Why?
9. What were the most vivid and convincing aspects of fifteenth century Italian life in the novel? What details in particular made this world come alive for you?
10. The novel may be seen as a meditation on beauty. What is the relationship in the book between external beauty and spiritual beauty? Between physical beauty and the creation of art? Between beauty, purity, and godliness? Do you agree with these associations as they are made in the novel? Can you explain how this relationship between beauty and faith might be appropriate to social and cultural realities in fifthteenth century Italy, and yet inappropriate by twenty-first century cultural standards?
11. What did you learn about the daily life of an artist that surprised you? How might your approach to the study and appreciation of Renaissance art be changed after reading The Miracles of Prato?
12. The Holy Belt of the Virgin Mary is an important symbol in the novel, both as one of faith, and one of female power. What role does the belt play in the successful return of Lucrezia's baby? Do you believe this is a miracle, a human manipulation, or both?
13. The color red appears in many guises and in relation to many objects in the novel. Which objects can you think of and what is the symbolism behind them?
14. The Miracles of Prato is a collaboration between a novelist and an art historian. Can you see how this partnership benefited the story?
15. The novel is based on true events, but the authors take many liberties with the fragmented facts that history passed on to us. This is often an area of contention between historians and novelists. Do you have a bias toward or against fiction that liberally imagines the internal thoughts and private motives of public figures?
Discussion Questions for The Miracles of Prato