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Avenue of Mysteries

Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for Avenue of Mysteries includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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.


    Juan Diego—a Mexican-born writer—leaves his home in Iowa and heads to the Philippines in order to honor a promise made long ago. During his travels he sometimes chooses not to take the medicine prescribed for his heart because it makes him feel “diminished,” and he begins to experience his past much more vividly than his present. Juan Diego dreams of his youth in Mexico and gets lost in recollections of the shocking moments and mysterious happenings that made him who he is: of his mind-reading sister, Lupe, and his mother, Esperanza; Rivera, the man who was “probably not” his father; the loving couple who adopted him; and the colleagues, clergy, and circus performers who changed his life.

    Irving’s fourteenth novel explores the hold the past has upon us and the tension—both cultural and personal—between faith and reason. The tale of one man from the Mexican basura reveals a sweeping allegory of all that is mysterious: the incomprehensible and unfathomable things we struggle to make sense of and of the strange events, coincidences, and convergences that shape our course and fill our life with wonder.

    Topics & Questions for Discussion

    1. Where does the title of the book come from? Why do you think Irving chose it? What is the Avenue of Mysteries and why is it important to Juan Diego? How does the title correspond to the major themes of the book? What are some examples of mysteries in the novel? Are they ever demystified or explained? How do Juan Diego, Lupe, Vargas, and the other characters respond to and feel about mysteries? Do they share a unified point of view?

    2. At the beginning of the novel, readers learn that Juan Diego doesn’t want to be identified as Mexican American. Why? What does this tell us about him? How does Juan Diego choose to identify himself?

    3. What are the “two lives” that Juan Diego says he lived and why does he say that he lived them “on parallel tracks”? Where does Juan Diego say is where he “lived most confidently, and with the sweetest sense of knowing who he was”?

    4. Does Avenue of Mysteries ultimately suggest whether such a thing as fate exists? Does Juan Diego’s life seem to be determined by fate, by his own choices, or by coincidence? How do Lupe’s predictions contribute to a dialogue about fate in the novel?

    5. Evaluate the treatment of religion and faith in the novel. Consider the discussions of religion that take place between Juan Diego and his sister, between Vargas and Eduardo, and between Eduardo and Juan Diego. Which of the characters have religious faith and which do not? What are the reasons for their faith or lack thereof? What causes Juan Diego to feel that he had “an ax to grind . . . with certain social and political policies of the Catholic Church”? What does Juan Diego say that he had “instead of religion”?

    6. Who is Flor and what is her relationship to Juan Diego? How does Irving depict the transgender experience? How does Eduardo feel about Flor? What can we learn about love and relationships from her interactions with Eduardo?

    7. What does the novel reveal about the relationship between fiction and autobiography? What does Juan Diego say is the most important thing about his novels? Where does Juan Diego say the ideas for his novels come from? What does Juan Diego believe constitutes good writing? Who does Juan Diego believe are the best readers? Do you agree? Why or why not?

    8. Evaluate the portrayal of women in the novel. What does the novel indicate about gender and womanhood? What does Lupe’s mind reading reveal about the treatment of women in this society? How do the passages about Guadalupe and the Virgin Mary contribute to this dialogue?

    9. Juan Diego embarks on a physical journey to the Phillipines, but he also embarks upon a journey through dreams and memory. Why does he set out on his physical journey and what happens to him along the way? How is he changed by these experiences? Does he ever reach his destination? What other journeys—physical or symbolic—do he and the other characters take? How are they changed?

    10. Why do you think Lupe chose to crawl into the lion’s cage? Does Juan Diego understand her motives for doing this? How does he come to terms with her death? Why do you think that Lupe ultimately asked to have a Catholic funeral despite the feelings she expressed about religion?

    11. Miriam and Dorothy appear and disappear throughout the book. Who are these women? How does Juan Diego feel about them? Would you say that he trusts them? Why or why not? How do they compare to or differ from the other female figures in the story?

    13. Who is el gringo bueno? Why is he in Mexico? What role does he play in Juan Diego’s life? What does Juan Diego promise himself after talking to el gringo bueno?

    14. Why does Lupe refer to the statue of the Virgin Mary as “the Mary Monster”? Why does she prefer icons representing Guadalupe to those of the Virgin Mary? How do these icons compare to the statue given to her by el gringo bueno? What was your reaction this gift?

    15. Irving has said that he begins his novels by writing the last sentence. Evaluate the final sentence of the book. How does it tie in with the major themes of the book? At the conclusion of the novel, what does the author say that people really want when they die? Do you agree?

    Enhance Your Book Club

    1. Compare Avenue of Mysteries to other novels that include the collision of faith and reason as a theme. What do these books seem to have in common? Which storytelling devices or styles seem to be most successful or persuasive among the various works? Would you say that Irving offers a new or different perspective? Explain.

    2. The journey is a universal motif in literature. How does Juan Diego’s journey compare to the ones undertaken by characters in other novels you’ve read? What common themes emerge? Discuss an important journey that you have taken or wish to take. How has it changed your life or how do you believe it might?

    3. Consider some of the political and cultural issues addressed in the novel, such as poverty, the Vietnam War and draft dodging, and the AIDS crisis. How does Avenue of Mysteries introduce and treat these topics, and what message does it offer on these subjects?

    4. In Avenue of Mysteries, Irving revisits some of the motifs featured in his previous works. Examine and evaluate the recurring motifs in Irving’s oeuvre. What images and symbols recur? Why do you believe Irving chooses to reuse these motifs from book to book?

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About the Author

John Irving
Photograph © Jane Sobel Klonsky

John Irving

John Irving was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1942. His first novel, Setting Free the Bears, was published in 1968, when he was twenty-six. He competed as a wrestler for twenty years, and coached wrestling until he was forty-seven. Mr. Irving has been nominated for a National Book Award three times—winning once, in 1980, for his novel The World According to Garp. He received an O. Henry Award in 1981 for his short story “Interior Space.” In 2000, Mr. Irving won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Cider House Rules. In 2013, he won a Lambda Literary Award for his novel In One Person. An international writer—his novels have been translated into more than thirty-five languages—John Irving lives in Toronto. His all-time best-selling novel, in every language, is A Prayer for Owen Meany.