Reading Group Guides

The Lost Symbol

1. How familiar were you with Freemasonry before reading the novel? How did your impressions of the organization shift throughout the book, from the chilling prologue to Peter Solomon’s philosophical comments near the end?

2. How do Peter Solomon’s students (including Robert) reconcile their admiration for him with the knowledge that he is a Mason? Did it surprise you to learn about well-known American historical figures who were Masons and to read about scientists who were intrigued by mysticism and other occult belief systems?

3. Discuss the novel’s grand theme of architecture. How did The Lost Symbol change the way you think about the way buildings are designed and the intention of their architects (creators)? What most surprised you about the tributes to the past—and visions of the future—that are captured in the landmarks of Washington, D.C.?

4. Mal’akh considers the polarity of angels and demons noting that “the guardian angel who conquered your enemy in battle was perceived by your enemy as a demon destroyer.” What does this indicate about Mal’akh’s perception of himself in the world? How can his evil nature be explained? Why is he only able to consider his own suffering, while relishing the suffering of others?

5. How did you react to Katherine Solomon’s work in Noetic Science? What motivates her to investigate the tangible aspects of the human soul (attempting to weigh it, even)? How would it change the world if there were more tangible evidence of the spiritual world? How is Katherine Solomon’s perception of science different from Robert Langdon’s?

6. At the heart of the novel is a quest to unlock wisdom, and the need to keep it “locked” because it can be used for destructive purposes. Do you believe that freedom of knowledge (Wikipedia, a world wide web) is a blessing or a curse?

7. The novel’s epigraph, from Manly Hall’s The Secret Teachings of All Ages, encourages readers to become aware of the meaning of the world. What mysteries about the world, and life, do you think are the most important ones to explore?

8. How did Mal’akh amass enough power to turn his personal plot into a national security threat? What does his rise to power indicate about the potential of mind over body and a human being’s ability to play a variety of roles for unsuspecting audiences?

9. The final chapter raises intriguing questions about the possibility of a multi-faceted God and the potential to find God in all of humanity. Can there be a universal definition of enlightenment?

10. While interpreting the Masonic Pyramid’s final inscription, Robert Langdon tries to bring order out of chaos by interpreting each symbol as a metaphor. Peter Solomon instructs him to be literal and accept the inscription as a true map. What does this exchange say about the best way to interpret all sacred messages?

11. What truths do Katherine Solomon and Robert Langdon experience in the epilogue, at sunrise, atop America’s ultimate symbol? From your perspective, what does the Capitol symbolize?

12. What does The Lost Symbol indicate about the power of the Word—both ancient texts and bestselling twenty-first-century novels?

13. What common thread runs through this and each of Dan Brown’s previous works? What makes The Lost Symbol unique? How has Robert Langdon’s perspective changed from Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code?

Wicked

The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

By Gregory Maguire

Summary

When Dorothy triumphed over the Wicked Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum’s classic tale, we heard only her side of the story. But what about her arch-nemesis, the mysterious witch? Where did she come from? How did she become so wicked? And what is the true nature of evil?

Gregory Maguire creates a fantasy world so rich and vivid that we will never look at Oz the same way again. Wicked is about a land where animals talk and strive to be treated like first-class citizens, Munchkinlanders seek the comfort of middle-class stability and the Tin Man becomes a victim of domestic violence. And then there is the little green-skinned girl named Elphaba, who will grow up to be the infamous Wicked Witch of the West, a smart, prickly and misunderstood creature who challenges all our preconceived notions about the nature of good and evil.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Gregory Maguire fashioned the name of Elphaba (pronounced EL-fa-ba) from the initials of the author ofThe Wizard of Oz, Lyman Frank Baum-L-F-B-Elphaba. Wickedderives some of its power from the popularity of its source material. Does meeting up with familiar characters and famous fictional situations require more patience and effort on the part of the reader, or less?
  2. Wicked flips the Oz we knew from the classic movie on its head. To what extent does Maguire’s vision of Oz contradict the Oz we’re familiar with? How have Dorothy and the other characters changed or remained the same? Has Wicked changed your conception of the original? If so, how?
  3. The novel opens with a scene in which the Witch overhears Dorothy, the Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Woodman gossiping about her. She’s “possessed by demons,” they say. “She was castrated at birth . . . she was an abused child . . . she’s a dangerous tyrant.” How does this scene set the stage for the story, and what themes does it introduce?
  4.  What is the significance of Elphaba’s green skin? What are the rewards of being so different, and what are the drawbacks? In Oz — and in the real world — what are the meanings associated with the color green, and are any of them pertinent to Elphaba’s character?
  5. One of Wicked‘s key themes is the nature and roots of evil. What are the theories that Maguire sets out? Is Elphaba evil? Are her actions evil? Is there such a thing as evil, a free-floating power in the universe like time or gravity? Or is evil an attribute of the actions of human beings? (Hint: Turn to pages 231 and 370 for scenes that will draw you into the conversation.)
  6.  Discuss the importance of the Clock of the Time Dragon. Does the Clock simply reflect events, or does it shape them? Why is it significant that Elphaba was born inside it? That Turtle Heart was killed by it? What revelations does it offer to Elphaba and the reader when she reencounters it at the end of the book?
  7.  The first section of the book ends powerfully but enigmatically when the young Elphaba is discovered under the dock, cradled in the paws of a magical beast as if sitting on a throne. How do you interpret this scene, and what do you think it foretells, if anything?
  8.  The place of Animals in society is an important theme in Wicked. Why does Elphaba make it her mission to fight for Animal rights? How else does social class define Oz, and why?
  9.  [Galinda] reasoned that because she was beautiful she was significant, though what she signified, and to whom, was not clear to her yet” (page 65). Discuss the transformation of Galinda, shallow Shiz student, to Glinda the Good Witch. How does she change — and by how much? What is her eventual “significance,” both in Oz and in the story?
  10.  Discuss the ways in which Elphaba’s determination and willfulness lend purpose and order to her life, and the cost of being such a strong character. Elphaba isn’t the only strong female character in Wicked. How do Nessarose, Glinda, and Sarima deal with the issues of power and control? Where do each of them draw strength from? Is the world of Maguire’s Oz more or less patriarchal than millennial America?
  11.  Wicked is an epic story, built along the lines of a Shakespearean or Greek tragedy, in which the seeds of Elphaba’s destiny are all sown early in the novel. How much of Elphaba’s career is predestined, and how much choice does she have? Do you think that she was no more than a puppet of the Wizard or Madame Morrible, as she fears?
  12.  Early in their unlikely friendship, Galinda catches a glimpse of Elphaba and thinks she “looked like something between an animal and an Animal, like something more than life but not quite Life” (pages 78-79). Discuss the dual, and sometimes contradictory, nature of Elphaba’s character. Why does Elphaba insist that she doesn’t have a soul?
  13.  Who or what is Yackle? Where does she appear in the story, and what role does she serve in Elphaba’s life? Is she good or evil — both or neither?
  14.  Was Elphaba’s story essentially a tragedy or a triumph? Did she fail at every major endeavor, and thus fail at life; or because she refused to give up or change to suit the opinions of others, was her life a success? Is there a possibility that Dorothy’s “baptismal splash” redeemed Elphaba on her deathbed, or was this the final indignity in a life of miserable mistakes?

Mirror Mirror

A Novel

By Gregory Maguire

Introduction

In Mirror Mirror Snow White is called Bianca de Nevada. She is born on a farm in Tuscany in 1495, and when she is seven, her father is ordered by the duplicitous Cesare Borgia to go on a quest to reclaim the relic of the original Tree of Knowledge, a branch bearing three living apples that are thousands of years old. Bianca is left in the care of her father’s farm staff and the beautiful — and madly vain — Lucrecia Borgia, Cesare’s sister. But Lucrecia becomes jealous of her lecherous brother’s interest in the growing child and plots a dire fate for Bianca in the woods below the farm. There Bianca finds herself in the home of seven dwarves — the creators of the magic mirror — who await the return of their brother, the eighth dwarf, long gone on a quest of his own.

Questions for Discussion

    1. Maguire has said he doesn’t want to be known as the writer who retells children’s stories for adults. Is Mirror Mirror a retelling of the story of Snow White, or is it something else? Something more than a fairy tale? Something less?
    2. The version of Snow White that we are most familiar with is from the collection of the Brothers Grimm. Countless picture books as well as film and theater adaptations set the book where the story itself was collected: in the shadowy woods of Bavaria, Germany. There is a northern cast to the telling even in the title: Snow is less familiar in the Mediterranean than in the Black Forrest. What undertones arise when telling the story in a northern clime that are absent in a Mediterranean setting? How does the story change by being set on sunny Tuscan slopes rather than in the aromatic pines forests of the Alps?
    3. An airy tale exists in a kind of “nevertime.” The famous “Once upon a time” beginning of the old tales generally signals a setting vaguely medieval, freed from cultural or historic details that would pin the story down to a specific century. To paraphrase writer and critic Jane Langton, a fairy tale happens in an amorphous period some time between the fall of Constantinople and the invention of the internal combustion engine. We expect wishing wells, swords, goblets, maybe even battering rams and spinning wheels; we don’t expect spectacles, wheelchairs, a postal service. What does it do to an old tale to slap it into a particular set of decades — in the instance of Mirror Mirror, the first three decades of the sixteenth century? Is that story at home here?
    4. Mirror Mirror, more than any other novel of Maguire’s, features figures from history. Lucrezia Borgia and her bother Cesare Borgia, the model for Machiavelli’s The Prince, have central roles. (Think how the traditional prince who wakes Snow White with a kiss differs from Machiavelli’s The Prince!) Pope Alexander VI, his courtesan la Cattanei, the scientist Paraclesus, the poet and typeface designer Pietro Bembo are referred to in passing. (Maguire has mentioned that a temptation he found very difficult to resist was to find roles for the young Michelangelo, the older da Vinci — so many famous figures of the High Renaissance were thriving in these decades.) Is the inclusion of actual figures in a tale of fancy in any way dismissive of their place in history? Does it strengthen the story?
    5. In Disney’s Snow White, the dwarves are named. This was a daring move, for in a fairy tale, creatures like dwarves, woodland animals, crones in the wood, and so on, are meant to perform a universal function, to stand in, like a Greek chorus, for the rest of the world. To name the dwarves is to confer individuality upon them and to threaten to muddy the focus of the story. How does Maguire play with this stress in his naming the dwarves in Mirror Mirror?
    6. Maguire was planning to begin the first draft of Mirror Mirror just after his kids began the school year in September 2001. He was still making notes on September 11, 2001. Writing seemed futile and self-absorbed in those nightmarish weeks. Can you see why the first lines Maguire could bring himself to write of Mirror Mirror were the four lines on page 32
      I am a girl who did no wrong.
      I walked this side of Gesù when I could.
      I kept an angel in my apron poacket.
      I do not think it did me any good.
    7. In a sense, the original story of Snow White is a story of maturation, of evolution. How do each of the characters evolve in Mirror Mirror?
    8. In terms of symbolic weight, the apple in the Snow White tale — the poisoned apple — is likened to the apples from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. How farfetched is this association? Does it work?
    9. In her monologue in the chapter called “Mirror Mirror” (page 187), Lucrezia Borgia muses: “Out of out need we patronize our artists, we flirt with our poets, we petition our architects: Give us your lusty colorful world. Signal to us a state of being more richly steeped in purpose and satisfaction than our own” Of course her life of wealth, power, and comfort proves relatively unsatisfactory. She is always hungry for more. Perhaps it is the storyteller and the novelist who provide their “lusty colorful world” to nurture us, distract us, console us. The philosopher Roger Scruton said, “The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.” Is this true of Mirror Mirror? If there is consolation to be had in his novel, what is its character?
    10. For an alternate version of a Snow White tale by Gregory Maguire, take a look at the short story called “The Seven Stage Comeback” in A Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, published by Simon and Schuster. For another alternate version check out “So What and the Seven giraffes,” included in Maguires collection called Leaping Beauty and Other Animal Fairy Tales, published by HarperCollins children’s division. What is it about fairy tales that they can survive multiples retellings, even by the same author? Perhaps not only survive retellings, but thrive on them?
    11. Who is the fairest one of all?

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

A Novel

By Gregory Maguire

Summary

We have all heard the story of Cinderella, the beautiful child cast out to slave among the ashes. But what of her stepsisters, the homely pair exiled into ignominy by the fame of their lovely sibling? What fate befell those untouched by beauty…and what curses accompanied Cinderella’s exquisite looks?

Set against the rich backdrop of seventeenth-century Holland, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister tells the story of Iris, an unlikely heroine who finds herself swept from the lowly streets of Haarlem to a strange world of wealth, artifice, and ambition. Iris’s path quickly becomes intertwined with that of Clara, the mysterious and unnaturally beautiful girl destined to become her sister.

Far more than a mere fairy-tale,Confessions is a novel of beauty and betrayal, illusion and understanding, reminding us that deception can be unearthed — and love unveiled — in the most unexpected of places.

Questions for Discussion

  1. While versions of the Cinderella story go back at least a thousand years, most Americans are familiar with the tale of the glass slippers, the pumpkin coach, and the fairy godmother. In what ways doesConfessions of an Ugly Stepsister contain the magical echo of this tale, and in what ways does it embrace the traditions of a straight historical novel?2. Confessions is, in part, about the difficulty and the value of seeing-seeing paintings, seeing beauty, seeing the truth. Each character in Confessionshas blinkers or blinders on about one thing or another. What do the characters overlook, in themselves and in one another?3. Discuss the role of artistic representation in Confessions. Consider the two portraits the Master paints. What do they say about each other, and about art? What does the Master purport to want to capture in his paintings, and why?

    4. Gregory Maguire posits four types of beauty in the novel: that of physical human grace and perfection, that of flower blossoms, that of art, and that of the gesture of charity. Is it possible to make a statement about the relative values of beauty? How is each type of beauty represented in the story?

    5. Is Clara’s extreme beauty really an affliction, as Iris suggests, making her just another addition to the Gallery of God’s Mistakes? Do you think her beauty is a curse or a blessing?

    6. Iris is possessed by visions of imps and hobgoblins — her imagination transforms a crone into the Queen of the Hairy-Chinned Gypsies, a windmill into a ferocious giant, and smoke on the horizon into a dragon’s breath. Why do you think she sees the world this way? Ultimately, is there an imp in the van den Meer house?

    7. The early seventeenth century was a time in which the Dutch, it is said, invented the idea of the “comfortable home.” How does the van den Meer home reflect the family within? What elements in Confessions rely on the need to keep up appearances?

    8. How does the story of van den Meer’s rising and falling fortunes in the tulip market relate to Clara’s tale? What lessons does it offer us today?

    9.  Clara is preoccupied with the idea that she may be a changeling. Why does she think, even hope, that she is one? In the end, how might we redefine the term “changeling” with Clara in mind?

    10.  In considering Marie de Medici’s scheme to marry off her godson, Margarethe professes an admiration for the Dowager Queen, saying, “Why shouldn’t she arrange the world to suit herself? Wouldn’t we all, if we could?” [page 243). Discuss the ways that Margarethe arranges the world to suit herself. What does her favorite saying, “Give me room to cast my eel spear, and let follow what may,” tell us about her?

    11.  When Iris asks the crone about casting a magic spell on someone, the crone replies, “It’s your own job to change yourself” (page 164). Transformation is one of the main themes of “Cinderella,” and ofConfessions. Discuss the ways in which the characters are transformed or transform themselves over the course of the novel. What’s the value and/or the cost of transformation for each?

    12.  On page 65, Margarethe tells Iris, “women must collaborate or perish.” Does Margarethe really believe this statement? In what ways do women collaborate or fail to collaborate in the story?

    13.  The novel begins and ends with the issue of charity — Margarethe’s request for charity in a strange town and Clara’s act of charity toward her stepmother and stepsisters. Discuss how these scenes frame the story. At the ball, the Master says, “perhaps charity is the kind of beauty that we comprehend the best because we miss it the most” (page 313). What does this mean to you?

    14.  How has the book changed your conception of the Cinderella story? The notion of “happily ever after”?

    The Next Queen of Heaven

    A Novel

    By Gregory Maguire

    Introduction

    With the new millennium approaching, the eccentric town of Thebes grows even stranger. Mrs. Leontina Scales begins speaking in tongues after being clocked by a Catholic statuette. Her daughter, Tabitha, and her sons scheme to save their mother or surrender her to Jesus—whatever comes first. Meanwhile, choir director Jeremy Carr, caught between lust and ambition, fumbles his way toward Y2K. The ancient Sisters of the Sorrowful Mysteries join with a gay singing group. The Radical Radiants battle the Catholics. A Christmas pageant goes horribly awry. And a child is born.

    Questions for Discussion

    1. A history of millennial anxiety has plagued the Western, largely Christian world since the turn of the first millennium in 999 (technically the millennium turns at the end of the year 1000, but 999 and 1999 seem more propitious as dates over which to gnash our collective teeth). Even the half-millennium at 1499 provoked fears of the world ending, prophecies of doom, the Apocalypse, the Second Coming of Christ, and so on. While in 1999 our overt fears seemed largely focused on the Y2K problems of potential global computer meltdown, it might be said that the anxiety over related fears of social anarchy through the disruption of transportation, food distribution, and communication networks was just a modern version of our age-old dread of change. In what ways to Tabitha, Jeremy, Pastor Huyck, Mrs. Scales, Sean Reilly, and the other citizens of Thebes express—or resist—the anxiety of the period, as late autumn yields to winter and to New Year’s Eve, 1999?

    2. With notable exceptions, especially in the years since this book takes place, in general our America culture is particularly tolerant of the freedom to live in a sacred or a secular way. On the one hand, piety in America is expressed in a thousand and one different manifestations, from the personal epiphany of a momentary mood to mass hypnosis on a cult level—and many legitimate and persuasive (if peculiar) instances of codified faith and belief systems in between.The Next Queen of Heaven demonstrates a number of varieties of religious experience in the lives of its many characters. How would you enumerate or characterize them, and who—if any—is the person whose experiences most closely accord with experiences of your own?

    3. The story of The Next Queen of Heaven is set—purposefully—about five years before the revelations about the machinations of the hierarchy of the Catholic church in covering up or inadequately punishing the crimes of pederasty on the part of some of its priests. Does knowing what history would reveal to us five years after the end of the story in any way effect how you read the scenes that express religious and laity in their practice of honorable Catholic devotion?

    4. Further to that point about timing, the book concludes in late January, 2000. Y2K has come and gone, and the menace of social breakdown has not happened. Jeremy and Tabitha (and for that matter, Mrs. Scales) live into a new century and a new millennium (as they count it) and, in relief, try harder to escape their various lonelinesses. But we know, as they cannot, that September 11, 2001, is only twenty months away, and that for many alive at this critical moment, the century will seem to begin right then, that day, with a dawning awareness of horror that was not to be left behind in the vicious twentieth century. Indeed, Jeremy may even have gotten a job in the World Trade Center, we realize. Does knowing this, as the characters cannot, change the impact and meaning of their successful escape from their various woes? Put more philosophically, perhaps, are our own lives made more precious or more defeated by the knowledge of the certain catastrophe of death that awaits, sooner or later, for us all?

    5. Is there a character in the novel who might legitimately be thought to be The Next Queen of Heaven? Who would you nominate, and why?

    6. Thebes, New York, is an invented town, though it shares some characteristics with small upstate New York towns in the work of John Gardner, Richard Russo, perhaps William Kennedy. The portrait of a town as seen through its inhabitants is a tricky business. Garrison Keillor can do it, but he has had decades to build up the impasto that suggests permanence and transience alike, decades in which to remind us that local history is made up of single days lived one at a time, from one point of view at a time. In what ways and at what points does Thebes come most clearly to life? Were you to scribble a short story about an incident in Thebes that the author apparently neglected to include, what incident might round out the picture of this hardscrabble town on the shores of Lake Ontario?

    7. Tabitha Scales is foul-mouthed and her mother, until the accident, has a tongue washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. In what ways do Tabitha and her mother trade places in the course of the novel? In what ways might Tabitha be said to be a result of the apparently well-meant if dubious child-rearing practices of her mother?

    8. While sex is talked about freely in this novel, the incidents of sexual congress happen either in the past or off-stage. Jeremy Carr, particularly, has become paralyzed in his emotional life due to his actively freshened memories of his romance with the love of his life, Willem Handelaers. And the novel and riveting erotic experiences Tabitha has lately enjoyed with her former boyfriend capsize her ability to think beyond him, to see herself in Thebes in any vital and fulfilled way. (In this way, the younger of the two, she is way ahead of sluggish Jeremy.) Does the involvement in sex and romance with either of these characters seem to contradict whatever passes in them for spiritual experience? Why or why not?

    9. At the beginning of the novel, Mrs. Scales might be said to be deluding herself about her capacity as a mother, about her overall rectitude. Perhaps the clonk on the noggin she receives is a moment of revelation to her, a kind of Annunciation, that she has to deal with her own inner demons before she can capably address the foibles of her children. However, how does her daughter delude herself, too? Is Hogan guilty of self-delusion? Kirk? In fact, is Tabitha actually pregnant at novel’s end, or is she experiencing an hysterical pregnancy? To what in the text can you point to support your claims?

    10. The author has revealed that some of his personal experiences inspired part of the novel. He was, for instance, the director of a choir in a Catholic church in upstate New York while he was in college and shortly thereafter. One unsigned criticism of the novel on a blog or discussion board suggested that the author allowed himself to be too easy on the Catholic church while consigning the Pentecostal church next door to the situation of providing comic relief—that is, weighting the story theologically in favor of Catholicism over fundamentalist Protestantism. Is there any validity to this criticism? In the course of telling a story, is a novelist obliged in any way to fairness in representing characters, or is allowing the characters to behave according to the needs of the story the only criterion of legitimacy required?

About the author

Gregory Maguire received his Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Tufts University. His work as a consultant in creative writing for children takes him to speaking engagements across the United States and abroad. He is a founder and codirector of Children’s Literature New England, Incorporated, a non-profit educational charity established in 1987. The author of numerous books for children, Mr. Maguire is also a contributor to Am I Blue?: Coming Out From the Silence, a collection of short stories for gay and lesbian teenagers.

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