1. The first chapter of After You’ve Gone, introduces Henry Dorn at the beginning of his marriage to Olivia in Elmira, New York, in the summer of 1891. “What flowed out to him that evening was the lovely dulcet balance, as pure as the hand in his, of the cello.” (p. 1).What is immediately apparent about Henry in these few pages? What do you infer about Olivia?
2. The second chapter moves Henry abruptly into a whole new world; he is now fifty-five years old and in “unspoken exile” in Amsterdam. What are the constant themes that connect this Henry with the one in Chapter One? How do these two chapters give you an insight into Henry’s nature?
3. “Henry worked his way through Kummer’s Daily Exercises” (p. 5). According to Kummer the main aim of learning the cello was to achieve a full and powerful, but not stiff tone. Kummer believed that “Because of the beautiful sound of the cello, its most characteristic feature is the influence upon the mind and the heart, only when used with mind and heart.” How would you describe the relationship of mind to heart in Henry Dorn?
4. “It was almost as if he’d had two families” (p. 17). What is meant by this statement? The accident that kills both his wife, Olivia, and their son, Robert, divides Henry’s life into two distinct periods; before and after the tragedy. Why do you think that the duality of Henry’s family life is an important theme?
5. In their wrenching last encounter before the accident, Henry and Robert attack each other verbally and ultimately Robbie attacks his father physically. Are Henry and Robert really so different? What tears them apart? “I was always afraid of you. But I shouldn’t have been, should I? You were always right there for me, weren’t you? I was just too young to see it. There wasn’t fear, was there. I must’ve had a bad dream . . . Gosh, Dad, isn’t it strange how those things can just overtake you and you don’t even know that it’s not true? That in fact your father doesn’t know what to do with you, is scared of you and so you end up scared of him?” (p. 232). What role does Olivia play in the father-son dynamic?
6. After Henry resigns from his teaching position why does he choose to go to Amsterdam rather than return to Nova Scotia?
7. When he first catches a glimpse of Lydia Pearce on his voyage aboard the Veendam II. Henry muses about women. “Men were the great vessels that passed over an ocean as if it were only there to be passed over; women were the scrappy schooners of his childhood, not only down in the trough of the waves but riding up to the tips and sloughing down again” (p. 75). Explore the differences between men and women in the novel and the conflicts in Henry’s mind. How do the two women in Henry’s life, Olivia and Lydia, differ? How does this correspond with the historical period in which the novel is set?
8. What initially attracts Henry to Lydia Pearce? Is it significant that they meet aboard a ship? Once Lydia has told her “little story” do Henry’s feelings change? “Alone on a seemingly tranquil sea he stood gazing out at the morning star and realized that something had just begun with Lydia Pearce, something he could not predict or control but was fully within” (p. 131). What does Lydia represent for Henry? What is Henry’s attraction for Lydia?
9. Why is the fire at Henry’s childhood home in Nova Scotia a turning point in his life? What influence does Uncle George have upon Henry’s early life?
10. “Of his father there was only a recalled presence; a looming figure, huge hands and a gentle voice but no images to fit this—only the sense of those things having existed. Of the death and burial, even the return to Nova Scotia he remembered nothing. His mother had two photographs of his father but he’d seen them only a couple of times as a boy and they could have been anyone” (p. 64). Why is Euphemia reluctant to talk to Henry about his father? How does this impact on Henry’s sense of himself as a man and as a husband and father?
11. Does the pulling back and forth between time periods in alternating chapters help to develop the story and bring Henry Dorn into focus?
12. “Although festive, most of the music one way or another was born of the sea, and the toll it exacted. Weddings, Henry decided, were strange affairs, as likely to produce tears as laughter and no telling one moment to the next who would erupt with any possible combination” (p. 86). Through the summers of Henry’s adolescence, his sexual awakening with Laura Crocker, his sister’s wedding, and his jobs with his Dorn uncles, what are the distinct influences on Henry? How does he change? Do you think that living in Nova Scotia has a marked effect? How?
13. “But he was confident also he could find some of the drawings, the paintings he’d only heard of. Things like that, beautiful things, did not disappear from the face of the earth but lasted. It was only a question of being dogged, not giving up, asking the right questions enough times to enough people and he would find them” (p. 91). Is this statement really true for Henry? What is he seeking? Does he find what he is looking for at his father’s grave?
14. After Lydia leaves Henry in Amsterdam to go to Paris, he reflects on, “How alone a person lives” (p. 98) What bearing does Henrys feelings of isolation have on his relationships with his mother, his wife, his daughters, his son, and ultimately with Lydia?
15. What picture do you get of the young Dorn family on the hot day in late summer when they visit the water toboggan?
16. What effect does the “terrible summer of 1907” in which Robbie suffers from whooping cough and Uncle George dies in Nova Scotia have on Henry? What does he come to understand about his mother and his uncles?
17. In what ways does the story of Dimitri Morozov’s family affect Henry? What lessons about life does Henry learn from his cello teacher and from practicing the original cello suite composed by Morozov?
18. Henry loves to walk and learn to navigate in his surroundings whether in Amsterdam or Nova Scotia or at the lake with his father-in-law. What besides the layout of the countryside or city does Henry understand from his walks?
19. What is Henry expressing when he finally writes his letter to his mother? What motivates his writing? Why does it exhaust him?
20. “Perhaps we hold too rigidly to the breaking down of time into days and months, even years. When I look back over my life so far I see it as one thing rolling into another, but I also see it as being periods. Cycles of time” (p. 150). What is happening to Henry when he sees Olivia’s “ghost” while dining with Lydia?
21. What does Henry experience as he watches the construction of the Ferris wheel? “The wheel had lifted them high above themselves” (p. 205). How does it alter his connection to Lydia?
22. “Children are happy with daisies in a field. Adults demand more. Sometimes too much” (p. 218). Why do you think Lydia leaves Henry to go to Paris? What does she need to work out? “Life, Henry, I’ve learned is relentless and wonderful and you showed and gave me much of this understanding. Part of which is that we are always falling forward into the future” (p. 224). How has her personal history affected her relationship with Henry?
23. What is the meaning of the quote from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the context of After You’ve Gone? What have April’s sweet smelling showers created?
24. On the day of Lydia’s return to Amsterdam, Henry wears himself out, running errands and preparing everything for a perfect reunion. Did Henry find what he was looking for? What does Lent mean, as Lydia disembarks, by “she knew his location by heart?” (p. 247)?
If you enjoyed After You’ve Gone you might also like:
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson; Devotion by Howard Norman; Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje; Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz; Atonement by Ian McEwan; The Shipping News by Annie Proulx; Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories by Alice Munro