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Reading Group Guide: The Animal Girl
Questions for Discussion
- How does the title of the opening story, “Hunters,” reflect and magnify its themes? How are both Charles and Kate hunters? What are they looking for? Are they both really seeking “tenderness without attachments,” as Kate wrote in her personal ad?
- When Kate is diagnosed with a terminal disease, she decides to pursue a romantic relationship for the first time in years. What do you make of her peculiar way of dealing with her disease? How does her relationship with Charles compare to the relationship between her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend?
- When Charles discovers that his new girlfriend Kate will soon die of cancer, he decides to end the relationship. He tells her that he doesn’t know her well enough to watch her die. Do you understand his decision? Why does he return to see Kate later? What does he seem to want from her during his visit?
- At the center of this story is the scene in which Kate embarks on a hunting trip with Charles. She clearly feels ambivalent about the prospect of hunting: “She felt a little strange and improper, going out into the woods to kill things.” At the same time, after missing her first bird, she “wants to shoot more surely the next time.” What fascination does hunting hold for Kate? When she’s killing her bird with her hands, why does “the stupid bird’s determination” enrage her?
- Where is Kate left at the end of this story? Has her failed relationship with Charles finally given her something of value? Could the relationship be seen in some ways as a success?
- In “Real Grief,” why does the character of Holly Morris behave so badly at her grandmother’s funeral? Given that Holly Morris is an object of desire to the adolescent boys on her street, why do they want to avoid her at the funeral? What are they frightened of?
- What do you make of the title of this story? Is there “real” grief in this story or, for that matter, “false” grief?
- When he looks at Holly Morris’ grandmother in her casket, the narrator “knew exactly what to do, how slowly, quietly to approach, bow my head, look and feel solemn, say a few silent words to myself. This was how to grieve and help my neighbors grieve their loss.” At the end of the story, when Holly is kissing him out in the garage, he wants to flee Holly and stand “above the dead woman, anticipating the proper feelings, and then, looking down at her white, reconstructed face, thinking and feeling them.” What is the narrator learning about grief and loss at this funeral?
- “The Animal Girl” is structured around two plots. In the first, Leah struggles with the recent loss of her mother and her father’s deepening relationship with his new girlfriend. In the second, Leah develops a crush on her boss at the lab and watches animals die. How are the two plots related? Do you see any relationship between Leah’s experience of death in the lab and her grief for her mother? How does her role as “the animal girl,” the girl who takes care of the animals, compare with her removed and destructive role at home?
- Why does Leah name one of the dogs in the lab even when Max, her boss, warns her against it? When she develops a relationship to the dog, Ten Bucks, why does she make herself watch the dog die?
- What fascinates Leah about her boss, Max? In their first long conversation, she begins to pry into his private life, asking about his divorce. Later, she searches through his house, uncovering objects that are particularly embarrassing to Max. She shows an interest in his house and furnishings, which she thinks of as being “stuck in the seventies.” Why do you think Leah would develop a crush on this figure?
- Do you understand Leah’s hurtful and damaging behavior towards Max? Why does she make this accusation, especially considering that she tells her malicious lie “without contempt for Max, without much feeling at all for Max”? When her father arrives at the police station, he is clearly traumatized by Leah’s lie and she is immediately regretful, even to the point that she finds it “unbearable looking out on the nightmare she was creating.” Nevertheless, does her lie allow her to get something that she needs from her father?
- At the end of the novella, Leah is upset because she forgets her dead mother’s birthday and because “‘it feels like [her mother is] getting farther and farther away.’” What seems to be Leah’s relationship to her dead mother and to her grief? Why can’t she let go? And what do you make of the final image, the return of Ten Buck’s in Leah’s dream? Has Leah learned something at the end of the story? Is she moving on, recovering from her loss and the resulting anger? Or do the final lines suggest a darker reading of the story?
- How would you describe Martin and Nancy’s relationship in “A Small Matter”? Is it a healthy relationship, troubled?
- What are they hoping for in their trip to Florence and what do they find? Do you understand Nancy’s anger towards Martin? Why does she refuse to leave the train car while Martin leaves quickly? Of the two, who makes the more reasonable decision?
- At the end of the story, how has the relationship changed? Has Nancy truly forgiven Martin? What haunts Martin? Why is he unable to forgive himself? Is there relationship in jeopardy?
- Discuss the ways in which Evelyn, rather than Jenny, might be seen as “the sleeping woman” referred to in the title. Might she be said to have slept through her life or part of her life? In what ways is she unaware of herself and those around her? Likewise, could Russell be seen as a slumbering or dormant figure?
- What role does bicycling play in this novella? How does it bring out the larger themes and concerns of the story? What does the fact that Russell doesn’t bike say about him? Finally, discuss the bicycle accident. How is this event pivotal to the story?
- Do you understand why Margaret and Russell have not decided to take an active role in ending Jenny’s life? How do you feel about this decision?
- Why does Evelyn want to visit Jenny? Does she learn something about Russell and his wife in this scene? Does this visit in some way make a relationship between Russell and Evelyn more viable?
- Considering the collection as whole, comment on the ways in which the stories cohere. What themes and patterns seem to reoccur? In some ways, the collection is composed of love stories. Do you notice any similarities in the relationships the stories focus on? What sort of vision of romance do the stories present? What role does grief or loss seem to play in the stories?
- Why do you think the stories fall in the particular order that they do? Do you see development in the collection as a whole? Do you see any narrative logic in the author’s decision to begin the collection with “Hunters” and end it with “The Sleeping Woman”? Does “The Sleeping Woman” resolve any tensions raised by the stories that come before it?