The Atlas of Love

The Atlas of Love by Laurie Frankel

For the first 22 pages of The Atlas of Love by Laurie Frankel, I thought this is a pleasant little novel, but what will the book club discuss at our next meeting (on Thursday February 17, 2011, 7 PM at Borders, 91st and Metcalf, Overland Park, KS)? The story of three college English Literature graduate students raising a baby boy (Atlas) is pleasant enough but where’s the controversy or the topics for prolonged discussion?

That’s not to say there aren’t enjoyable and witty passages very early in the novel. And the novel’s depiction of life as a graduate student (and college teaching in general) rings true. Laurie Frankel teaches in the English Department at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. See her blog at http://lauriefrankel.blogspot.com/.

Just to give you a minimal cast of characters; Janey is the narrator and cook; Jill is pregnant, a graduate teaching assistant studying Holocaust narratives (a hard topic if you’re a new mother) and soon to be (by page 83) mother of Atlas; and Katie is the Mormon, Victorianist graduate teaching assistant who cannot cook, despite her last name (which is Cooke). The trio of friends are quickly fleshed out by the author using numerous anecdotes related by the narrator. Some of my favorites passages follow:

  • Katie’s transformation from archnemesis to friend via mini cream puffs (page 10-11) and the description of graduate school as one of several “perilous climates untenable without support” (like “war and international diplomacy”).
  • Being nemesisless (page 14).
  • The description of university teaching (accurate from your experience? See page 16).
  • Excuses for late papers (page 17).
  • “Eating dead chicks on rye” (page 19).
  • Cooking as insanity management (is it? See page 22).
  • The nostalgia of the bookstore and children’s books (page 67-68).
  • What brings “realness” to the impending birth and Grandma’s “No. 1 Granddaughter” package (pages 68-69).
  • The description of “waiting” for the birth. See pages 70-72.
  • The “rollover” episode coupled with the discussion of “sleep deprived mothers” waiting to witness each milestone in a child’s life. See page 140-141.

While the anecdotes are endearing, entertaining, and enlightening, I wasn’t sure what we’d discuss until I reached page 22 (maybe I’ve been in academe too long with too much emphasis on discussing ideas and concepts, but it’s hard to just enjoy a “nice story” without dragging in epic themes and questions of meaning). So anyway, here are some questions that might engender discussion at our next meeting (though we never seem to have a difficult time discussing anything and everything) .

Caveat: I’ve only read through page 171, so only heaven (the author and faster readers) know how the book concludes.

  1. Do you “buy” the “conventional wisdom that you’ll never have a baby (house, retirement, new career, whatever) if you wait until you’re ready, in fact, that you’ll never do anything if you always wait for conditions to meet ideals…?” See page 23.
  2. How do you view life? Is it a personal narrative with the “epic options of literature” at your disposal (Jill) or part of “God’s Grand Plan” (Katie)? See page 35.
  3. What do you think of a man (or woman) whose favorite author is Sports Illustrated? See page 39.
  4. What was your reaction to a man (Daniel) who fathers a child and says “I want an abortion!” Did Daniel get his wish? See page 41.
  5.  What does Janey mean when she says “There’s not the same non-negotiation with friends as with family….And it begged the question whether this baby would be family or friend and which really, were Jill and Katie…?”
  6. What do you think of Nico’s super organized life style? Realistic? See page 74-75.
  7. I loved the story of Seventh Grade Amoeba Jane. Are you an Amoeba or an Amoeba Jane? See pages 107-108.
  8. Do you agree that “books tell the stories of their readers?” What does that mean? See page 120. On the same page there are two other fascinating phrases:
    “There are no uplifting literary periods.” True?
    and
    “I can’t let words on a page ruin my life.” Do you agree?
  9. Comment on “I am a firm believer in knowing people by knowing what they read, holding their favorite words in your mouth, running curious fingers along the spines of their books.” So what does that say about All Good Books club members? <smile>
  10. Did Ahab (Moby Dick) have a choice as Janey suggests or is it just literature? Is there a difference between a real person (and one’s choices) and the options of an allegorical character? What is our ability to choose? What options do we really have? See the wonderful conversation that starts on page 122 and ends on page 123 with Jill’s comment to Janey: “Or at least that’s the story you tell….”
  11. Who is Katie? What do you think of her quest for the “ever after happy ending” (and a husband) and her apparent love blindness? See pages 124-126.
  12. What are your thoughts on Nico’s dating theory of “soul compatible and actually compatible?” See page 127.
  13. Was the “seismic dinner party” fair to Katie? Funny? Thought provoking? Ridiculous? See pages 143-145.
  14. Was “Katie’s compromise” a thoughtful, Christian choice? Selfish? Irrelevant? A Jane Austin moment? See page 147.
  15. How would you describe Janey’s mood starting on page 150 and the shift that occurs on page 154. Is she justified? Do you agree with Janey when she states “But it is sometimes not true that the behavior has to shift so much as the attitude.” Does that mean that sometimes it is true (that the behavior must shift before the attitude)?
  16. Did you look up the poem “A Story About the Body” by Robert Haas? I did. http://crowsperch.blogspot.com/2007/12/story-about-body-by-robert-haas.html
  17. Is history “make-believe…storytelling. Fun with narrative?” Are both history and literature “fiction” as Janey suggests in her conversation with Ethan on pages 163-165?
  18. Was it appropriate for Janey to talk with Ethan about Katie’s dating of Peter? See page 166-167.
  19. What did you think of NiCMO (“Non-Committal Make Out” in Mormon Speak). See page 168.
  20. Any reactions to Jill’s withdrawal from her graduate studies while replying on Janey and Katie for support? See page 169-171. Or her contention that Atlas needs a man in his life?

Well, there you have it. My thoughts and questions on the first half of The Atlas of Love. How far have you read?

After completing The Atlas of Love by Laurie Frankel, here are a few more questions for possible discussion:

  1. Ethan says on page 194, “History does teach you through that threads and connections are trickier than they seem…Meaning what seems relevant and meaningful now isn’t a very good indication of anything. Things that look like signs usually aren’t.” Do you agree or disagree. If Ethan’s statement is true then how do we evaluate “signs of our times” or the events in Middle Eastern countries during February 2011 or the “signs of the end of times” (wars and rumors of wars) or any string of historical events?
  2. What did you think of Diane’s efforts at the “reeducation of Daniel?” Was it her “place” to do so? See page 197.
  3. Have you read any Shakespearean plays? If so, what’s your reaction to the analysis of the lessons taught by Shakespearean literature as discussed by Jill and Janey on pages 196-200?
  4. Do you know anyone like Grandma (see page 222)? Do you have such a Grandma in your life?
  5. Is the “drama unit” (page 224) a metaphor for Janey’s life or is Janey’s life an example for the drama unit?
  6. Grandma’s “when the time comes speech” (page 227) is the kind of message I’d like to share with my children when my days approach their end. Is it the speech you’d give? Is there any part of the message you’d change, modify or delete?
  7. Would you worry as much as the narrator does on page 235? Is her worry over the top or justified?
  8. Are our expectations about developments and “endings” in life influenced by the movies? Does art imitate life or lives imitate art? As discussed in the movie unit (page 240-241), do you agree that movies “don’t mean anything…in the same way that poems are meaningless until figured out?”
  9. Do you think the mystery of life is in the “what” or the “why?” See page 241. Does it vary based on one’s age? Stage of development? Or?
  10.  Why do you enjoy movies (assuming you do)?  Is the reason any different than why you enjoy some books and not others? See page 243.
  11. Janey says “just because a story is sad doesn’t make it a tragedy.” Agree? Do you like or do you avoid sad stories?
  12. “Most movies aren’t tragedies. Most movies are redemptive,” says the narrator on page 273.  “We see their (the movie’s) characters going through the hard parts knowing that it will turn out well for them, that they will learn from their pain what they wouldn’t without it.” Is that how life works? Do we learn from near misses and hardships? Do people sometimes not learn at all?
  13. Like Janey on page 274, did you fail to see how the novel would resolve the major conflicts or did you agree with Ethan that “it’s not over yet. You won’t know until the end…?”
  14. Explain Janey’s statement (page 295) that “Things don’t exist on their own. They don’t exist at all without being owned.”  Can you offer an example?
  15. Do you agree with the explanation of the purpose or nature of the “novel” (page 301)? Did this novel meet the narrator’s criteria?
  16. What did you think of the novel’s conclusion? Realistic? Contrived? The only way the story could end? Unexpected?
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