1. This moving novel charts the destruction that can occur within the heart of families and the ensuing strength of the human spirit to overcome it—or to pursue another path, at least. Did you find this novel ultimately redemptive? Discuss your reactions.
2. Consider the theme of erosion that weaves through the narrative, constantly undermining the characters and causing them to reassess their lives. Discuss the many guises erosion takes: the sea and wind against the landscape; time, love, hope, and illness. Did you find other guises? Consider this quote: “When you look up from the beach you can see the web of roots clutching naked and panicky at the yellow sand” (p. 85). How does this imagery of roots compare to the people in the novel?
3. Ludwig Unger tells his life story to a woman he meets in a bar after returning to Alburgh, his childhood town, for a funeral. How is this narrative device effective? How did it deepen your understanding of Ludwig’s character? Did he evolve during the long hours of telling this story? Is Linny Wallace important to the story, or is she merely one woman in a particular time and place in Ludwig’s life?
4. Ludwig views his life story as a confession: “The reason for my confession . . . lies in the desire to impose order” (p. 78). Why do you think he feels this way? Was he searching for absolution through its telling? What do you think “imposing order” suggests? Do you agree that he achieves order through his narration? Discuss how and why he views his life as unstructured, beyond his control, or out of order.
5. In many ways Ludwig considers himself unanchored or adrift in the world because of the physical loss of his childhood home on Kings Ness, taken from him and his mother by the raging wind and North Sea. Discuss what this home meant to him as an adolescent. How was it a sanctuary for him and his mother, a refuge from the constantly threatening world? What does the home—and its loss—mean to him as an adult?
6. Discuss the many ways in which the ground beneath Ludwig’s feet collapses (literally and figuratively) throughout his childhood, and examine why he considers his relationship with his mother the bedrock of security.
7. The complicated relationship between Marthe and Ludwig—as seen through Ludwig’s eyes—lies at the heart of the novel. Discuss the intensity of Ludwig’s gaze and why his mother held such sway over him. How does the father’s abandonment affect them? Do you think Marthe was aware of her son’s confused sexual feelings for her? Why do you think she dresses him and puts makeup on him?
8. Discuss how loneliness impacts both Ludwig and his mother. How often do they interact with others? Do you agree that they are an island unto themselves? Is this a result of Ludwig’s blinkered vision of his childhood with Marthe? Did Ludwig—a Dutch-Austrian boy, born in Alexandria, living in England—feel like an outsider?
9. “My mother has led so many lives already, her life with me was merely one manifestation. That makes you unsure of yourself” (p. 99). Is Ludwig’s discovery that his mother is the renowned porn star, Eve LeSage, the culmination of his childhood fears that he is not the center of her life? Why or why not? Find earlier examples of his attempts to make her his alone. Did he ever succeed?
10. How, if at all, does Ludwig’s relationship with his mother change after this discovery? In what ways does his self image change? What does he mean when he states that “my history was in need of rewriting” (p. 91)?
11. Marthe Unger is portrayed through the lens of her son, through the screens and veils of his all-consuming adolescent love for her tinged with his present-day adult perspective. How do Ludwig’s feelings for his mother change throughout the course of the novel? How do his feelings remain the same? Consider how the author presents both sides in the same narrative voice.
12. Throughout the novel Ludwig attempts to hold onto his past as a proof of his existence, of his passage through life. Discuss this preoccupation in terms of the theme of death that permeates the novel. Using the following quote as a springboard, elaborate upon the reasons for his need to spend time with his mother: “Although I had lost her any number of times, she was indeed the only one I had. There couldn’t be anyone else, we were the sole witnesses to each other’s lives” (p. 212).
13. Why does Ludwig take his parents’ life histories so much to heart, and why does he feel so responsible for them, viewing himself as an extension of both? Is he ever able to view himself apart from his parents, and especially apart from his mother?
14. In leaving his girlfriend Sarah and following his mother back to Europe, Ludwig believes that he is protecting and saving Marthe. Do you agree with this? How true was Sarah’s belief that he had grown too dependent on Marthe? Ludwig states: “The life of a porn star is her point of departure, I will be her return” (p. 132). What are Ludwig’s points of departure and return?
15. As cancer invades Marthe’s body, she staunchly refuses to follow conventional and potentially life-saving treatment in a desire to “remain faithful” to herself (p. 275). What is this truth of self to which she clings? Do you consider her decisions admirable or self-centered? Did you regard her death an act of self-destruction?
16. Discuss how the novel explores the role of marriage: Marthe and Bodo’s, Warren and Catherine’s, and Warren and Joanna’s. Consider whether or not happiness within a marriage is attainable in this novel. If so, must it always come at the expense of other people’s (particularly the children’s) happiness? Consider this quote and discuss how it applies to the novel’s theme of marital and parental responsibility: “Should you stay where your love is buried, is that where your home is? Or is it with your children?” (p. 20).
17. As an adult, Ludwig lives without roots, without permanence. He interprets his mother’s words “In fact, you don’t really need anyone anymore” (p. 103) as a call to a life of loneliness, to meaningless relationships with a succession of women. What do you think his mother might have meant instead?
18. Continue your discussion of Ludwig’s meaning of home by considering his statement: “I have learned not to desire a home wherever I am” (p. 237). How does he achieve the “Delicious mercy of indifference” (p.321) that his father prized so highly? Consider his poignant words about his relationship with Tate in the Caribbean: “[It] might amount to something. . . . The possibility of a roof over my head” (p. 243).
19. Discuss Bodo’s role in the novel, and the effects of his absence in Ludwig’s life. Why does he remain such a powerful influence over the years? Consider the private destruction that he wreaks on his family, and contrast it to his public artistic destruction, Abgrund (p. 154). What do you think about Bodo? Do you agree with his statement: “Destruction is the only thing with permanence” (p. 80)?
20. Warren Feldman’s response to nature’s adversity is to build a seawall to protect the homes and families he loves. Compare his reaction to those of Bodo Schultz, who launches a campaign against the gods in tearing down a mountain. Warren’s seawall fails, yet Bodo claims victory. What is the ultimate prize for winning? How do these two responses affect Ludwig’s attempt to live his life?
21. Why does Ludwig feel the need to visit his father after his mother’s death? What do you think he hopes to achieve through his visit? How does the presentation of Marthe’s fake ashes affect Bodo, and why does Ludwig consider this a moral victory? What does Ludwig mean when he says he “pulled closed behind me not one door, but many” (p. 322)?
22. Discuss the end of the novel, when Ludwig is finally able to let go of his mother’s ashes. Analyze the sense of relief that this brings him. What future do you envision for him as he moves forward with these words: “Nothing had remained undone, there was nothing I desired. I was alone. And everything was beginning” (p. 327)?
Suggestions for Further Reading
First Light by Charles Baxter; Winterton Blue by Trezza Azzopardi; Almost Innocent by Sheila Bosworth; Mothers and Sons by Colm Tóibín