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Source: (consider it) Thread: June book: The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue
andras
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Do we have a book for reading / discussing in June yet?

[ 02. June 2017, 23:47: Message edited by: Trudy Scrumptious ]

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Garasu
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Emma Donoghue's The wonder, apparently.

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Sarasa
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Gosh June already. There should be a thread about the book starting shortly, but in the meantime I'd better get reading.

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Trudy Scrumptious

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As person leading the discussion, I decided to change the title and make this the official discussion thread. Hope that works. Has anyone read or begun reading the book? I found it quite a quick read, and very interesting.

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Trudy Scrumptious

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For a little more about the book: The Wonder is historical fiction, but is inspired by real life tales of "fasting girls" who were believed to miraculously live on little or no food. In the book, an impoverished family in an obscure 19th-century Irish village has a daughter who they claim has taken no solid food for several months. A skeptical English nurse is one of the people sent in to examine the veracity of the family's claim, and she ends up getting drawn more deeply into the intrigues of the family and the village than she would have thought possible. The book is a really interesting exploration of faith and skepticism, miracles and doubt, as well as being a very well-realized piece of historical fiction.

I'll post some questions here about the 20th of the month. Hope that others are able to get hold of the book and join in the discussion.

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I read this with my book club a few years ago and loved it. Thank you for reminding me of it. My group tends toward action packed books with fast pacing and many Events. We just read "The Boston Girl," which covers the long life of an immigrant in a series of chapters jumping years at a time. I couldn't explain to my group why I didn't much like it, but I wish I had thought of "The Wonder," as a contrast.

There is so much depth in this one. Emma Donoghue takes time to sink us deeply into the place and time. I don't remember the details well enough to take part in the discussion, but remember how much I loved the contrast between the nurse's skepticism and child's simple unquestioning faith.

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andras
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There was a similar fasting girl not too far from where I live at about the same period as the novel is set in.

It was a pious fraud of course, and one that ended tragically as they often did. Quite looking forward to reading this.

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Brenda Clough
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quote:
Originally posted by andras:
There was a similar fasting girl not too far from where I live at about the same period as the novel is set in.

It was a pious fraud of course, and one that ended tragically as they often did. Quite looking forward to reading this.

How did they often, tragically, end? The fraud unmasked and everyone's belief undermined? Or, in the attempt to prove the bond fides, did the alleged faster starve herself to death?

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andras
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In this case, self-starvation, but a modern view might be that anorexia played a significant role in the matter. I don't think it's accidental that so many of these poor lasses were teenagers.

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Adrian Plass

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I'm in for this one, and have just read it. I found it compelling, and the ending satisfying, but I do wonder about the anorexia angle. Looking forward to the discussion.
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andras
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Just came across this, which suggests that the same sort of thing is still going today. Breatharian couple live on 'cosmic energy'

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andras
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Sorry, fouled that up! Here we are:

Breatharian couple live on 'cosmic energy'

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Adrian Plass

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Sarasa
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Just finished it. After initially not being too sure about it, by the end I was gripped. Looking forward to the discussion too.

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Trudy Scrumptious

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quote:
Originally posted by andras:
Sorry, fouled that up! Here we are:

Breatharian couple live on 'cosmic energy'

Yes, I thought the whole "Breatharian" angle was interesting and timely in the context of reading this book.

I'm thinking over discussion questions and will post some tomorrow.

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Trudy Scrumptious

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All right, a few questions. As per usual, feel free to use these as a jumping-off point for whatever you want to talk about, or ignore them altogether and just plunge in. It is now open season on discussing The Wonder.

1. Before encountering this book, had you heard of the “fasting girls” phenomenon? If so, what did you think about it? How do you think it relates to other such phenomena like the modern-day “Breatharians ”?

2. What do you think of Lib Wright as the main point of view character in this story? As the outsider coming into the situation, is she relatable? Believable? Did you find her too harsh in her judgements of the community and the O’Donnell family?

3. As you read the novel, what conclusions did you form about Anna and her fasting? Were your guesses borne out by what was revealed later in the book, or were there twists that surprised you?

4. How did the revelation of Anna’s and Pat’s relationship change your perception of Anna and the O’Donnells? Did you see this coming, or were you surprised by it? What did you think about Rosaleen’s reaction when Lib tells her about Anna and Pat? The priest’s reaction?

5. What about the ending? Was it believable? Satisfying? Why or why not?

6. What do you think this novel has to say about faith? Is religious faith ultimately a positive or a negative force in Anna’s life, and in the lives of the other characters?

7. What other reflections did you have about the story, setting, characters?

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andras
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Since no-one else has jumped in, I shall!

I'm not sure Lib is entirely believable; she's very well-written, but would a Nightingale Nurse really just let it all happen? And potentially face a manslaughter - or even murder - charge?

Of course, she's utterly out of her depth in this deeply Catholic environment, and that I felt was well depicted. This was a time when households in England advertising for a maid would routinely state No Irish Need Apply, simply because it was felt that the Irish in general knew absolutely nothing about how 'civilised' people lived. And here the reverse applies - hence Lib's distress at eating the peat-flavoured food.

I felt that the book changed - for the worse - perhaps two-thirds of the way through. But it was still a good read, with the atmosphere of an Irish peasant society well caught.

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Sarasa
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1. Before encountering this book, had you heard of the “fasting girls” phenomenon? If so, what did you think about it? How do you think it relates to other such phenomena like the modern-day “Breatharians ”? 

I’d read a little about these girls, but can’t remember much detail. Looking at this site I think I remember reading about Therese Neuman before. Certainly Donoghue has used that case and the Sarah Jacob’ s one for some of the details in her book. I hadn’t really thought about any link between ‘fasting girls’, anorexia and Breatharians.


2. What do you think of Lib Wright as the main point of view character in this story? As the outsider coming into the situation, is she relatable? Believable? Did you find her too harsh in her judgements of the community and the O’Donnell family?
I thought Lib Wright was a credible character, a woman who’d had to make her own way in the world. I though her attitudes to Irish Catholics reflected what most of the English thought about them at this time, an attitude that lingered well into the 20th Century (I was brought up in a very Irish part of London and my dad wasn’t keen). I thought she was a reliable narrator though her view was more limited at first than she thought it was. Her attitude to Sister Michael for instance and the fact she didn’t twig that Pat was dead.

3. As you read the novel, what conclusions did you form about Anna and her fasting? Were your guesses borne out by what was revealed later in the book, or were there twists that surprised you?
From the start Anna came across as an intelligent, calm and collected girl who didn’t appear to be seeking attention. There was a suggestion in the article I read about the Jacob’s case that the child liked a life in bed reading rather than having to do the work that would have fallen to her otherwise. I didn’t get that feeling from Anna.

4. How did the revelation of Anna’s and Pat’s relationship change your perception of Anna and the O’Donnells? Did you see this coming, or were you surprised by it? What did you think about Rosaleen’s reaction when Lib tells her about Anna and Pat? The priest’s reaction?
The revelation about the relationship between her and Pat seemed very plausible and although I hadn’t guessed that was what had happened I wasn’t surprised.

5. What about the ending? Was it believable? Satisfying? Why or why not?[/]
The book seemed very slowly paced at first and then really picked up about two thirds through. I’m not sure how believable the ending was, wouldn’t someone have queried there being no body, but it was satisfying and I’m glad there was a happy ending for Lib, Anna and William. I was glad that Sister Michael didn’t turn out to be a caricature of a strict nun.

[B]6. What do you think this novel has to say about faith? Is religious faith ultimately a positive or a negative force in Anna’s life, and in the lives of the other characters?

I thought in the end religious faith was a positive for Anna and I liked the way William was hanging on to some sort of faith. The role of the priest puzzled me a bit. I thought he was going to be a far more major character than he turned out to be. Lib outsider view of Anna and her family’s faith was well done, her puzzling over the holy cards for instance.

7. What other reflections did you have about the story, setting, characters?
I had my doubts at first as it was so slow paced, but by the end I was gripped, probably helped by the fact I was on a plane and I and no other distractions. I liked the character of William, and although the romance was well ‘romantic’ it did seem reasonably credible.
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andras
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... but did we need that romance? I felt it detracted a little from the main story, but wasn't strong enough to be a proper subplot.

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Trudy Scrumptious

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Here are some of my thoughts...

1. Before encountering this book, had you heard of the “fasting girls” phenomenon? If so, what did you think about it? How do you think it relates to other such phenomena like the modern-day “Breatharians ”?

I hadn't heard of this at all, and I guess if I had, I would have thought of it as a manifestation of anorexia in a different historical and social context. Which I still think it probably is, in a way. Young girls who get anorexia today frame their experience in terms of body image, society's beauty standards, anxiety disorders, need for control. In an earlier era where religious faith was more dominant it makes sense to me that that same impulse, to starve oneself, would still be there but would be framed in terms of religious devotion.

In a way, the Breatharians (who I hadn't heard of until quite recently either) are somewhere on the same spectrum -- there's a kind of moral superiority to people who claim they are above gross bodily functions like eating. It's all about power and control over the body.

I wonder if "legitimate" fasting for religious reasons, like during Lent or Ramadan, is a point on the same spectrum, only the fasting girls, or the Breatharians, or whoever, take it to greater extremes.

In my own religious tradition (Seventh-day Adventist), regular fasting is not part of our practice, except for the occasional special "day of prayer and fasting" for a particular need. But there is huge emphasis within our church on "healthy eating," which for many means vegetarianism and veganism for some. I was turned off at a very early age by the attitude that "the fewer animal products you consume, the more Jesus loves you" and I've definitely been exposed to a lot of people in church circles who define their level of holiness by what they eat (or don't eat). So, I tend to see that as being on this same spectrum too. The more I think about it the more it interests me: how we demonstrate holiness/goodness/self-control through diet, and how that can go so badly off the rails.

2. What do you think of Lib Wright as the main point of view character in this story? As the outsider coming into the situation, is she relatable? Believable? Did you find her too harsh in her judgements of the community and the O’Donnell family?

I found her realistic and very relatable. I often worry about viewpoint characters in historical novels having opinions that are too modern for their era, and Lib is definitely presented as a woman ahead of her time, but in a believable way, I think. She is harsh in her judgements but it's believable that she would be.

3. As you read the novel, what conclusions did you form about Anna and her fasting? Were your guesses borne out by what was revealed later in the book, or were there twists that surprised you?

I really didn't know what to think. I was surprised when I learned how the "manna" feeding had been going on.

4. How did the revelation of Anna’s and Pat’s relationship change your perception of Anna and the O’Donnells? Did you see this coming, or were you surprised by it? What did you think about Rosaleen’s reaction when Lib tells her about Anna and Pat? The priest’s reaction?

I was kind of disappointed that there had to end up being an incest/abuse subplot. It's such a common trope in novels about deeply religious people, that there's hidden sexual abuse in there somewhere. Once it was brought in, I did think Rosaleen's and the priest's reactions were probably typical for what people's responses would be in that time and place, but I wished the big reveal had not been such a predictable trauma, because it just seems that's overused so that it's almost a given that where there's strong religious faith in fiction, somebody's getting screwed (and not metaphorically).

5. What about the ending? Was it believable? Satisfying? Why or why not?

It was satisfying but surprising to me. Because I've read several other Emma Donoghue novels, I know she doesn't usually go for the happy ending. There were so many ways this ending could have gone wrong, so many things that had to line up perfectly for them all to make their getaway (and Anna to agree to it!) ... I didn't believe it would all fall into place as neatly as it did. I liked it, because I liked all these characters and wanted them to live happily ever after, but I didn't think it was realistic that they would.

Anna is going to have some seriously rough times ahead in adolescence and young womanhood, I think, processing all this.

6. What do you think this novel has to say about faith? Is religious faith ultimately a positive or a negative force in Anna’s life, and in the lives of the other characters?

I think Lib, whose eyes we mostly see through, sees religious faith mainly as a limiting, restricting thing that makes people's lives worse. It is pretty much religion that sets up the sexual abuse within the family, keeps it secret, makes Anna feel guilty for it, makes her mother blame her for it, makes Anna starve herself, and makes her family resigned to their daughter's death from starvation rather than fighting to save her. So I don't think religious faith comes off very well in this novel -- yet it's not as straightforward as a simple rejection of faith either, because Anna's faith is shown as very real and sustaining to her, and Lib has to accept that.

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Trudy Scrumptious

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quote:
Originally posted by andras:
... but did we need that romance? I felt it detracted a little from the main story, but wasn't strong enough to be a proper subplot.

I liked it, but you're right, it wasn't terribly well developed. It contributed to the "happy ending," which, as I noted above, I liked but didn't full buy into. Too easy for them to get away with it all, and live presumably happily ever after.

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andras
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It's certainly true that characters in historical novels often (usually, even?) are given views that reflect our own century's world-view rather than their own. I wonder if that doesn't also affect Lib's view of religion.

The novelist and poet Matthew Francis (whose excellent new verse version of the Mabinogi wowed folks at Hay this year) told me a couple of weeks back that his creative writing students almost all assume when they read any novel from earlier than the Twentieth Century that any reference to religion is what he called 'evil religious propaganda' on the part of the author; they have no understanding that for instance to Trollope or Mrs Gaskell - and their readership - it was part of the air they breathed.

So it's perhaps no wonder that Lib views religion in that way; it's to some extent the view of the age we live in. It's the default attitude in a lot of TV drama too; Midsomer Murders anyone?

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quote:
Originally posted by andras:
[QB] It's certainly true that characters in historical novels often (usually, even?) are given views that reflect our own century's world-view rather than their own. I wonder if that doesn't also affect Lib's view of religion.
/QB]

This is quite true. It is both a flaw (all those bodice rippers in which the heroine seems to have access to modern birth control even though it is 1802) and inevitable, since one must write for one's reader. And all your readers are, necessarily, modern or in the future; you will never get any of the Victorian readers your writing style would be ideally suited for. The writer will always be balancing historical accuracy against reader comprehension. Ideally the work threads the needle, and you read it feeling as if you really have visited 1904 or whenever the work was set, and yet you entirely understand it.

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Trudy Scrumptious

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I think the thing is that you can write characters who are "slightly ahead of their time" in attitudes, etc., and it may be easier for a modern reader to identify with such a character, as with Lib in this novel. But you have to situate them clearly in their time and place, and give believable reasons that make sense, in their own context, as to why they would have these views.

There were people in the mid-nineteenth century who were skeptical about religion -- lots of them -- even though religious belief was still the default setting for most people. I think Donoghue has done a credible job of making us believe that Lib could be such a person, given her background and experience, so her skepticism doesn't feel like a modern attitude transposed onto a nineteenth-century woman.

That awareness of culture and setting always needs to be there -- so with religion, for example, if you're writing about people at most times and places in the past, the assumption is that most people will be at least conventionally if not devoutly religious, and if your character isn't, you need to give a plausible reason why they're not. Whereas in writing a contemporary character, it's probably almost the opposite -- if they ARE particularly devout, you need to give believable reasons why they would be so, because in most parts of the Western world that's not really people's default setting anymore.

It also helps, I think, to make historical characters more believable if mixed in with their apparently "modern" attitudes they have attitudes that are very much of their time and seem backward to us today. I know that I found myself when writing a fictional piece about suffragists, it was important to include not just the fact that they were very much in favour of Prohibition -- which is a piece of historical context about the suffrage movement that most people who've studied it at all know, but wouldn't seem obvious to a modern reader who didn't know the historical connection between the two movements -- but also to have a character make a casual comment about how good it would be if the poor could be sterilized to stop them having children, because eugenics and sterilization of the "unfit" were causes that quite a lot of women's suffragists also championed. I think it's necessary to have these jarring things to remind us that even though these characters are so "like us" in some ways, they do come from another place and time. In The Wonder, I think Lib's prejudice against the Irish serves this function well -- the modern reader tends to empathize with her skepticism and her suspicion of what she sees as superstition, but her wholesale dismissal of the Irish as being uniformly poor, backward and ignorant is jarring to us and it should be, because Lib, however advanced her views on some things, is still a product of her own time and place.

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andras
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quote:
Originally posted by Trudy Scrumptious:
I think the thing is that you can write characters who are "slightly ahead of their time" in attitudes, etc., and it may be easier for a modern reader to identify with such a character, as with Lib in this novel. But you have to situate them clearly in their time and place, and give believable reasons that make sense, in their own context, as to why they would have these views.

There were people in the mid-nineteenth century who were skeptical about religion -- lots of them -- even though religious belief was still the default setting for most people. I think Donoghue has done a credible job of making us believe that Lib could be such a person, given her background and experience, so her skepticism doesn't feel like a modern attitude transposed onto a nineteenth-century woman.

That awareness of culture and setting always needs to be there -- so with religion, for example, if you're writing about people at most times and places in the past, the assumption is that most people will be at least conventionally if not devoutly religious, and if your character isn't, you need to give a plausible reason why they're not. Whereas in writing a contemporary character, it's probably almost the opposite -- if they ARE particularly devout, you need to give believable reasons why they would be so, because in most parts of the Western world that's not really people's default setting anymore.

It also helps, I think, to make historical characters more believable if mixed in with their apparently "modern" attitudes they have attitudes that are very much of their time and seem backward to us today. I know that I found myself when writing a fictional piece about suffragists, it was important to include not just the fact that they were very much in favour of Prohibition -- which is a piece of historical context about the suffrage movement that most people who've studied it at all know, but wouldn't seem obvious to a modern reader who didn't know the historical connection between the two movements -- but also to have a character make a casual comment about how good it would be if the poor could be sterilized to stop them having children, because eugenics and sterilization of the "unfit" were causes that quite a lot of women's suffragists also championed. I think it's necessary to have these jarring things to remind us that even though these characters are so "like us" in some ways, they do come from another place and time. In The Wonder, I think Lib's prejudice against the Irish serves this function well -- the modern reader tends to empathize with her skepticism and her suspicion of what she sees as superstition, but her wholesale dismissal of the Irish as being uniformly poor, backward and ignorant is jarring to us and it should be, because Lib, however advanced her views on some things, is still a product of her own time and place.

I think that's all very true. In the wonderful Judge Dee stories, Robert van Gulik was careful to give the Judge attitudes which a modern European reader would regard as character flaws - such as an intense dislike of anything non-Chinese, and especially Buddhism - but which would strike a modern Chinese reader as positive attributes. The Chinese apparently like their heroes to be perfect, unlike Europeans who prefer them to have interesting character flaws, and here the same attributes appeal to both markets in different ways. Very clever!

Of course until at least the 1950s people in England were often very critical of the Irish Catholic peasantry, regarding them as priest-ridden, ignorant and superstitious; these views can still be found in parts of Glasgow and a good deal of Northern Ireland, and probably elsewhere too. So Lib's views aren't actually anachronistic in that regard.

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God's on holiday.
(Why borrow a cat?)
Adrian Plass

Posts: 409 | From: Tregaron | Registered: Dec 2001  |  IP: Logged
Trudy Scrumptious

BBE Shieldmaiden
# 5647

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Yes, but I think her views would still be considered anachronistic to most readers in the broader world. Even though we all retain some of these kinds of prejudices against people we consider ignorant and backward, it's no longer acceptable to state that plainly.

As June has slipped away from us and we're now into July, I'm bumping this to ask is there anyone else who has read this book and has any thoughts to share?

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Books and things.

I lied. There are no things. Just books.

Posts: 7293 | From: Closer to Paris than I am to Vancouver | Registered: Mar 2004  |  IP: Logged


 
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