Reading Group Discussion Questions

  1. In the Prologue "Silent Pictures," the author sets the scene through a narrator's voice and drops you into the middle of the Piper family's tangled relationships. Who do you believe is the original narrator?
  2. When 13-year-old Materia runs away with James, Mr. Mahmoud makes her marry James, gives them a house and then disowns his daughter. Were you surprised by the apparent contradiction? What kind of message did this send to Materia, her mother and her siblings? What role do you think this abandonment plays in her unraveling?
  3. The author uses foreshadowing skillfully throughout her novel. For example, Materia uses scissors to snip the kidneys for the kidney pie, then uses them to perform a Cesarian on her illegitimately pregnant daughter. What are some examples of foreshadowing you thought were most effective or haunting? What plot twists surprised you?
  4. Cape Breton Island is a landscape of forlorn beauty enveloped in a new-found poverty due to the Depression. How does the setting affect or mirror the people in it? Why do you think the author chose an island to set the scene, and what is the role of the surrounding sea? Do you think the community becomes a melting pot because it's isolated? What role does wealth play in social position and status for the Mahmouds, the Pipers and the Taylors?
  5. During her mother's funeral, Frances begins to convulse with laughter. She expects punishment, yet receives compassion. They think she's crying. She realizes, "The facts of the situation don't necessarily indicate anything about the truth of the situation. In this moment, fact and truth become separated and commence to wander like twins in a fairy tale, waiting to be united by that special someone who possesses the secret of telling them apart" (page 137). Cite some examples of how this statement rang true throughout the book and how some things aren't what they seem when you dig away at the surface.
  6. Mercedes believes that Lily is a candidate for sainthood in part due to her incredible compassion and ability to cure, but also in part due to the voices Mercedes believes she hears and the things she senses. Do you believe that Lily is exceptional? Do you think Ambrose really visits her? How could Lily remember things that happened as early as her infancy? What role do the spirits play throughout the novel?


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