The Last Tuesday Book Club: The Life She Was Given

This month’s book club selection is The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman. The only other book I’ve read by Ms. Wiseman is The Plum Tree, though she has two others: What She Left Behind and Coal River. Her books feature female protagonists placed in heart-wrenching circumstances who somehow learn to survive and grow.

The Life She Was Given is about two people: Lilly Blackwood, a young Albino girl whose mother sells her to the circus during the Great Depression, and Julia Blackwood, a young woman who has run away from home in the mid-1950s to escape her controlling and unkind mother.

For anyone who hasn’t read the book, I won’t put out any spoilers, but you may want to avoid reading the questions below until you’ve had a chance to read it.

I have mixed feelings about the book. I think Ellen Marie Wiseman is an extremely skilled and gifted writer and she has a way with words that I can almost assure you will bring tears to your eyes (if not a gushing flood of emotion). That being said, this story pushed me a little too far out of my comfort zone. I actually skipped one whole chapter because I knew what was going to happen and I just couldn’t bring myself to read it. I have to say I’ve never done that before.

For those of you who read it, what did you think? What were your overall impressions? And if you read the book, can you guess the chapter I skipped?

Here are the questions for this month, some of which I borrowed and/or tweaked from the back of The Life She Was Given:

  1. When Lilly left Blackwood Manor after ten years of never setting foot outside the attic, were you surprised by how quickly she acclimated to life on the outside? Did you expect her to have more developmental problems given the isolation of her first ten years?
  2. What is the author trying to say, if anything, about religion in The Life She Was Given?
  3. Why do you think Momma and Father were unkind to Julia, when their stated intention was to give her the life her mother had never had?
  4. Do you think Momma loved Lilly, or was her attitude toward her daughter based on something else?
  5. Do you think Lilly could have survived on her own if she had escaped from Momma on the way to the circus?
  6. What are your feelings about Lilly’s father?
  7. The parallels between Lilly’s life and that of the elephants and other animals are many and obvious. How did you feel when Jojo was taken from Pepper?
  8. What do you think of Claude? Do you think he did the right thing by keeping to himself during the time after Lilly disappeared? Do you think he was right not to share his knowledge with Julia?
  9. Do you think the title, The Life She Was Given, specifically refers to Lilly? Did you think it could refer to Julia, too?
  10. Have you ever been to the circus? What is your opinion of circuses?

Next month’s book is The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. It’s a story about a college student looking for a cousin in France after WWII who is joined by a former spy from WWI. I’m excited to read this one!

Until next time,

Amy

The Last Tuesday Book Club: Stolen Memories

Welcome to the second edition of the Last Tuesday Book Club. Last month we read The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro and there were some interesting points made during the discussion. My plan is to read a book every month and to discuss it on the last Tuesday blog post of the month. I hope more people join us in the coming months!

This month’s selection for our Last Tuesday Book Club was Stolen Memories by Mary Miley. Mary is also the author of the Roaring Twenties mysteries, as well as a large number of non-fiction books. Stolen Memories is a work of Gothic fiction and I found it to be an exciting page-turner. Here’s a synopsis:

It’s 1928. A young English woman in Paris is attacked and thrown into the Seine, where she is left for dead. Thanks to the quick thinking of two sailors nearby, she is rescued and taken to a hospital. When she awakens, she is alarmed to discover that she has lost her memory. She doesn’t remember marrying the man standing over her with angry, flashing eyes, and she doesn’t remember why she was in Paris. The man is demanding that she reveal to him where she has hidden a number of paintings, and she has no idea what he’s talking about. As the woman slowly regains some of her disjointed memories, she is disturbed to find that she still doesn’t remember anything about her marriage, her home, the paintings, or her family.

I loved the book. Gothic fiction is my favorite genre to read and this did not disappoint. There is a French chateau, a woman who has lost her memory, a mysterious man of wealth and a dubious past, missing artwork, and an attempted murder. It has all the ingredients of a dark mystery.

There are a number of discussion questions at the end of the book, and I have opted to choose a few of them and supplement them with my own questions. Please feel free to join the discussion in the comments below and ask any questions you  may have.

  • When does Eva/Claire begin to question her identity? Why does she initially explain away her doubts?
  • Dr. Thomas J. Barnardo was a real person who died in the 1950s. Was he correct, that heredity counted for very little and environment was everything? Would Eva have become Claire and Claire, Eva, if they had been adopted by the other’s parents?
  • Clearly, both heredity and environment (nature and nurture) play a role in every person’s development, but how would you rank the importance of each?
  • Did you recognize any of the other characters in the book, besides Dr. Barnardo, as being “real people?”
  • Why do you suppose Alex wanted the paintings back? Was it pride, financial need/want, determination, or something else? Was it a combination of things?
  • What did you think about Lianne’s role in bringing Eva/Claire to Luca? Do you think it was romantic imagination on Lianne’s part, or did she suspect that Luca meant Eva/Claire harm?
  • How do you feel about Alex’s sister Danielle? Do you like her? Dislike her? What do you think about her motives in visiting the chateau?
  • Why do you suppose Madame Denon and Cousin Pauline were in the book?

I reviewed Stolen Memories, giving it 5 stars. I hope you enjoyed reading and discussing the book. If you have any suggestions for a June book club selection, I’d love to hear them in the comments below. In the meantime, the selection for May is What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman. I’ve read The Plum Tree by Ms. Wiseman and she is an incredibly skilled writer.

Until next time,

Amy

A Review: The Plum Tree

For those of you who have been reading my blog, you may remember that one of the books on my TBR (to-be-read) list was The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman. I’ve finished reading it and I hope you’ll read it, too.

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The Plum Tree is a beautiful story about a young woman, Christine, who lives in Germany during World War II. She is in love with a young Jewish man, the son of her employer, and the horrors of the Third Reich and pre-war Germany begin early in the story. Christine’s journey of love and loss and hope is heart-wrenching; the reader easily forgets that this is a work of historical fiction, not a memoir. The story is filled with characters and events that seem so real and so close that one is sure that there must be a real Christine out there and Ellen Marie Wiseman has somehow read her mind and put Christine’s feelings onto the page, into words that are at once touching and terrifying.

More than once I had to put the book down because I didn’t want to read what came next, like the scene where a little boy is torn from his mother’s arms upon their arrival at Dachau. More than once I gasped out loud because of my revulsion over what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust, making my own children ask what in the world I was reading that was having such an effect on me. More than once I flipped ahead (I know, I know) because I couldn’t stand not knowing who would live and who would die.

But I always went back because I had to read the rest of the story.

And the story didn’t end where I expected it to. It introduced me to the shocking conditions that existed in Germany after the war ended, something I’d never thought much about. It reminded me that innocent Germans suffered, too; many of them paid a steep price simply because they were German.

If you’ve ever read Sarah’s Key, you’ve experienced the haunting feelings that linger after you’ve read the last paragraph of The Plum Tree. It’s a book that will stay with me, as I’m sure it will stay with anyone who reads it. I think it would be an excellent reading selection for a high school history or English class.

Next up from Ellen Marie Wiseman: What She Left Behind. If it’s anywhere near as good as her first book, I’ll love it.