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This reading group guide forAlexandra, Goneincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Anna McPartlin. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When Alexandra Kavanagh disappears one afternoon, it changes everything—not just for her husband and family, but for long-lost friends and complete strangers as well. In a strange twist of fate, her husband, Tom; former best friend, Jane; Jane’s sister, Elle; and the terse stranger, Leslie, are trapped together in an elevator at a concert. They form an unlikely bond, culminating in a pact to do everything they can to find Alexandra. The three women, however, have problems of their own, which are thrown into sharp relief by their efforts to help Tom Kavanagh find his wife. Jane is the rock of her family, constantly caring for her teenage son, Kurt; artistic and unstable sister, Elle; and alcoholic mother, Rose. But as she invests more and more in the search for her friend Alexandra, Jane thinks back on her teenage years and begins to wonder what happened to her dreams. Elle, abandoned by her lover and beginning to doubt her artistic talent, struggles in the search for Alexandra and in her unlikely new friendship with the reserved Leslie as her unstable emotional state escalates. Leslie, terrified that she will develop the cancer that has ravaged her family, tries to find her way in the world again after years of self-imposed isolation. As the search for Alexandra progresses, each person unearths truths—some less welcome than others—that they must face, lest they become lost themselves.
Questions for Discussion
1. At the beginning of the novel, who did you believe was to blame for Alexandra’s disappearance? Do you agree that Alexandra is not “the type” to abandon her family and husband? Did you ever suspect Tom?
2. Every New Year’s Eve, Elle writes a letter to herself with a list of things she wants to accomplish in the coming year, and digs up the previous year’s letter to compare her resolutions with her accomplishments. Do you have your own New Year’s ritual? How often do you keep your resolutions?
3. After her sister Imelda’s death, Leslie is overwhelmed by her family history. She withdraws from the world until her chance meeting with Tom, Elle, and Jane pulls her back. What would you have done in her place? Is it better to know the possibilities, even if the knowledge leads to fear, or do you agree with her niece that it’s better not to know and to just live instead?
4. When did you first realize that there was more to Elle’s behavior than simple whimsy or selfishness? How often does creative talent disguise or excuse deeper emotional and/or behavioral problems in our society?
5. Dominic chooses college and a career over a shotgun wedding with Jane in high school. Do you agree with his choice? Were those truly his only options, or was there a third choice he didn’t consider?
6. Irene’s mother, Martha, accuses Jane of being overly permissive with Kurt and Irene (allowing them to drink, sleep together, etc.), while Jane believes that Martha is the worse parent because of her extended absences and strained relationship with her daughter. Whom do you agree with? Is it better to have potentially dangerous behavior going on in a safe environment, or should Jane have tried harder to prevent these behaviors?
7. Is Tom’s relationship with Jeanette truly “cheating,” or is it an understandable error on his part? Is Jane’s violent reaction based on true indignation on behalf of the absent Alexandra, or on her growing emotional attachment to Tom?
8. Breda’s faith keeps her going in the early months of Alexandra’s disappearance, but eventually it wears thin. She tries to make a bargain with God, takes to her bed, and develops a terminal illness, all within a short time span. Are these three things related? If yes, in what ways? Does Breda’s faith help her through her time of need, or does it actually make it harder for her to let go?
9. W hat is the driving force behind Elle and Dominic’s affair—her mental illness, the forbidden nature of the entanglement, or something else altogether?
10. W hen Elle learns that her father committed suicide and that she shares his “temperament,” she begins to have visions of joining him, and eventually tries to kill herself. Is her attempt prompted by her discovery about her father? Could Jane have handled this revelation of family history differently, in a way that perhaps would have led to a different outcome?
11. Leslie, in order to move on with her life free of the fears that have plagued her, elects to have extreme surgery—a hysterectomy and double mastectomy. Would you have done the same? What are your feelings about elective surgeries like these? Are there cases in which they shouldn’t be allowed, or should it be entirely up to the patient?
12. At the end of Alexandra, Gone, Tom and Jane both get second starts in life—Tom as a traveler and philanthropist, and Jane as a doctor. Would they have had these second chances without the traumatic experiences they went through? Is it easier to change direction after a trauma?
13. Each chapter begins with a verse from one of Jack Lukeman’s songs. How did these lyrics influence and enhance your reading of the subsequent chapter?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Incorporate Jack Lukeman’s music into your discussion. Compile a mixed CD using the songs that appear at the beginning of each chapter. Or select a moment in the book when a specific song is playing (e.g., “Taste of Fall” during their entrapment in the elevator, or “Metropolis Blue” at Elle’s “missing persons” exhibition) and play the song while rereading the segment. Discuss how listening to the music changes the reading experience.
2. Incorporate artwork into your discussion: visit a local modern art gallery; attend a lecture on modern art; ask group members to bring in works by their favorite artist, modern or otherwise; ask group members to check out a few modern artists and pick the one they feel is most like what they envision for Elle’s work.
3. Have each member draft a “resolutions” letter. Share the resolutions, and discuss ways the group can help members achieve their goals.
A Conversation with Anna McPartlin
In your introduction, you mention that Jack Lukeman and his fans were a source of inspiration for this novel, in particular the relationship that the fans develop with Jack and the band without ever knowing them personally. What do you think it is about music that lends itself to creating those kinds of relationships? Do you believe the same thing is possible for authors and readers?
I think people respond to others’ talents. I don’t think an author can possibly have the same relationship with the reader as a performer—whether it’s a good singer, actor, or comedian—has with his or her audience. I’ve been at gigs that Jack has played and you literally could hear a pin drop, the audience was so enthralled. It was fascinating to witness.
Alexandra, Gone was originally released in Ireland under the title So What If I’m Broken. What led to the title change? Were there other things changed to adapt the book for a U.S. audience? Does the title shift change the book for you, personally?
I hated the title So What If I’m Broken, but my publishers in Ireland really liked it, as did the buyers and retailers, so I didn’t get much of a choice. I’m much happier with Alexandra, Gone. The title was changed to suit the market, so it gets a little confusing. I find it difficult to keep up, never mind my poor readers!
What led you to choose a missing person as the pivot point of the novel? Have you experienced a disappearance in your own life?
When Maddie McCann went missing while her parents were on holiday in Portugal, like everyone else I was completely horrified, and as time went on I started dreaming of this poor child. Her face was everywhere, and I remember watching out for her and doing a double take whenever I saw a little girl who matched her description. Alexandra came from the feelings Maddie stirred in me.
Art and music are an integral part of Alexandra, Gone, and are clearly topics close to your heart. How do these interests inform your writing process? Do you listen to certain musicians, or surround yourself with certain artists’ work?
Music informs everything I write. Every book I’ve written has its own soundtrack. When I get the idea for a novel, I upload between five to ten CDs onto my computer and I listen to them, and only them, until the book is finished. The music is my way in and out of the world I’ve created.
You start each chapter with a verse from one of Jack Lukeman’s songs. Describe the process of putting together the lyrics and the novel.
I listened to all of Jack’s albums for six months solid before I even typed one word. Elle came to me during one of his shows. He was performing a capella; it was a heartbreaking song and the audience was still and silent; then he burst into this huge up-tempo big-band song, and the audience started to dance and sing . . . and in my mind Elle was born. The rest of the characters all came from particular songs. Tom comes from “Lost in Limbo,” Jane was born with “Keep Dancing,” and Leslie comes from “I’ve Been Raining.”
Alexandra, Gone highlights many complicated issues—mental illness, addiction, cancer, missing persons, and teen pregnancy, to name a few. Which did you plan to address, and which cropped up during the course of your writing? What kind of research was involved to get all the small, essential details?
I never plan to address any subject or issue. I dream up characters and the story comes from them. I knew the moment I dreamed up Elle that she was bipolar although I never actually diagnose her in the book. I knew that Leslie had lost her entire family to cancer and I knew that Jane was living a kind of half life and that Tom was experiencing a living hell. After that, the story told itself.
Do you lay out your plots beforehand, or are there surprises in the writing process? Did you know from the beginning what had happened to Alexandra?
I have a brief story outline, but because I know my characters inside and out, I know what they are capable of and the decisions they’ll make; it makes sense to me to write that way. As a result my stories are character and not plot driven. I had no idea what happened to Alexandra until one day I was midway through the book and Jack’s “Rooftop Lullaby” began to play. It’s such a sad song. I shed a little tear or two because in that moment, I knew she would be found dead.
The novel shifts viewpoints from character to character, revolving around Jane, Tom, Elle, and Leslie. Which character was the hardest to write? Which was the easiest? Which is your favorite?
Elle was the greatest challenge because I had a lot of research to do before writing her. Her mental struggle needed to feel real so I worked really hard to ensure she didn’t become a silly cliché. She’s also my favorite character because I worked so hard on her and I feel closest to her.
Who are your influences as a writer?
My single biggest influence is Roddy Doyle. When I read “The Snapper,” I fell in love with all his characters and their warmth, and I knew I wanted to write stories just like he does.
Are you working on anything new that you can tell us about?
I’m working on a movie about five kids who break into banks during the Irish matches during the 1990 World Cup. Its working title is The Football Five.