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This reading group guide forDeceptions includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Rebecca Frayn. 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.
Julian and Annie have just announced their upcoming marriage, when the unthinkable occurs—Annie’s son, Dan, disappears on his way home from school. An intense search is conducted, but Dan has vanished. Determined to remain optimistic, Annie sees her son’s face everywhere she goes, and she tells her younger daughter, Rachel, that her brother has simply gone away on a long trip. As the weeks turn into months, and months into years, Julian urges Annie to move on, longing for the woman he once knew and loved. But Annie refuses to give up hope. Three years later, her faith seems to pay off when Dan reappears. As the family adapts to the return of their son and brother, who is now a stranger, Julian can’t ignore the doubts festering in his mind, causing him to question everything he thinks he knows.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. At the beginning of the novel, Annie proclaims, “We’re just a perfectly average happy family, aren’t we?” (p. 19) Do Julian’s early experiences with Annie and her kids contradict this? Do you think the family is “average” in any way?
2. Annie insists to the police that Dan would never run away from home. What do we know about her family that could make this idea a possibility?
3. Discuss the early days of Julian and Annie’s relationship. What attracts them to each other? How do the initial conflicts between them foreshadow the later problems they’ll face in their relationship?
4. How much does Annie’s grief over losing her husband contribute to her behavior? How does his death influence the other characters?
5. A major concern for Annie is which school Dan should attend. When she decides to send him to the local school, Julian disagrees with her. What does this incident reveal regarding Annie’s ideas about raising her son?
6. On page 41, Julian thinks, “In time, everything became tainted by what she grew to think of as our fundamental differences in ideology.” What is he saying here? How does Annie and Julian’s perception of each other affect their relationship?
7. At his new school Dan began to change in a way that was alarming to his mother and Julian. Do you think this should have been cause for concern, in the way that Julian and Annie saw it, or was his behavior typical of a teenager?
8. When Dan disappears, Julian is racked by guilt at his own failure to connect with the boy, and this feelings is partly reinforced by Annie. Should Julian feel guilty?
9. As Dan’s absence continues, Julian notices that Annie slips into “the comfort of a narrative” (p. 88) What do you think he means? How is Annie using this narrative to cope with the loss of her son?
10. Discuss how Annie treats her daughter, Rachel, after Dan disappears. Do you think Annie should have lied to Rachel about Dan’s absence? What would you have done differently if you were in Annie’s situation?
11. On page 116, Annie and Julian have an argument that results in Annie kicking Julian out of the house. What finally pushes her to end their relationship? Do you sympathize with her decision?
12. When Dan returns, Annie defies reason and refuses to inform the police or allow visitors to the house. Why does she do this? How much do you think Annie understands about the situation?
13. What makes Julian suspicious about Dan when he returns? Why does it take him so long to act on these suspicions?
14. Throughout the novel, the only perspective the reader has is Julian’s. How does Julian’s narration affect how we view the story? What do you think we don’t see?
15. There are many layers of deception in this story, and the title itself is Deceptions. Who is the most deceived here? Are Julian’s doubts somehow more compelling than Annie’s unwavering faith?
16. What conclusions, if any, can we draw from this story about what we perceive and what we judge to be true? How do our own desires cloud our judgment?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Learn more about the story of Nicholas Barclay and Frédéric Bourdin. Discuss how Bourdin was so successful and what motivated him to deceive so many people. You can find a profile of Bourdin at: http:// www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/08/11/080811fa_ fact_grann.
2. Annie explains the strange behavior of “Dan” by saying he has dissociative fugue, and Julian later thinks he has Capgras syndrome. You can learn more about these conditions by visiting the following websites: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capgras_delusion and www. merck.com/mmhe/sec07/ch106/ch106d.html. Discuss if these conditions could apply to any other famous characters in literature.
3. Julian works as an art appraiser, identifying forgeries for potential buyers. Read about the world of art forgery and about some of the more famous hoaxes in history at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_forgery. Watch the movie “The Thomas Crown Affair,” which features an art heist and an expert forger.
4. Learn more about Rebecca Frayn and her work by visiting her website at www.rebeccafrayn.co.uk.
A Conversation with Rebecca Frayn
You dedicate the novel and the inspiration for Dan’s story to Nicholas Barclay. What fascinated you about his story, and that of his imposter, Frederic Bourdin?
I was reading the newspaper one idle Saturday afternoon when I came across an article which held me spellbound from beginning to end. It told such a compelling tale of an American family and the bizarre deception that had unfolded within it that afterwards I couldn’t get it out of my head. Self-deception—the way in which we can know something yet keep that knowledge from ourselves—is something that has always fascinated me. And here was of the most remarkable examples of self-deception I had ever come across. This combined with the fascinating psychology of Frederic Bourdin, a serial fantasist in search of a family, seemed quite irresistible. So one day I sat down and, taking the barest bones of the real story, embarked on a psychological thriller about Annie Wray and what happens when her twelve-year-old son, Dan, goes missing.
Annie is a complex character, fiercely devoted to her family but often irrational in her decisions. How much of your own experiences as a mother went in to creating the multifaceted portrayal of Annie?
I’m a mother of three children, the eldest of whom are twin boys, Jack and Finn. And their age exactly paralleled the age of the missing boy as I wrote. Dan Wray is twelve when he goes missing—the same age as my sons when I began—and fifteen when he returns, as were my sons by the time I completed the novel. So inevitably I drew on the intense wellspring of feeling that I—like all mothers—feel for their children. But Annie is definitely not a portrait of me: her inconsistencies are uniquely her own.
One of the big debates Julian and Annie have is about where Dan should go to school. Can you fill in your American readers about the basic issues at stake and what makes English schools different from American ones?
Ever since I was a child, the choice between state comprehensive schools (non–fee paying schools open to everyone) and private schools (fee paying and only open to the minority who can afford them) has aroused much heated debate. Though 90 percent of children in England attend state school (as Dan does), the privileged private school graduates form an elite who continue to monopolize the top colleges and jobs.
Most private schools are for day pupils, but there are a number of private boarding schools, to which children may be sent as early as age seven and where they will remain until they’re eighteen. It was the traditional way the upper classes broke the allegiance of their sons to the family and prepared them to go out and run the British colonies.
The narrator, Julian Poulter, has been educated at Harrow, a boarding school founded in 1572, where the students still to this day wear tailcoat and striped trousers on Sundays. Although his experience is only obliquely alluded to in the novel, his being raised in an institution from such a young age is absolutely key to understanding Julian’s buttoned-up character. Many—perhaps most—of the British men I know were educated in this way and are probably fairly equally divided between those that loved the experience and those that (like my husband) loathed it. My own education was more akin to Annie’s. Because of my parent’s politics—they believed in an equal education for all—I was educated at local London state schools from the age of five to eighteen.
Did you go through a similar debate when it came to your own children?
When it came to my own children, I was very conflicted on the issue. Like Annie, I believe that state schools offer a more egalitarian and socially diverse experience. Our local state primary school is small and very good, so that’s where my children were educated until the age of 11. But our local secondary school is huge and beset by complex social issues very like those of Fishers Comprehensive in the novel. So once my children reached eleven, we sent them to a nearby private school. Boarding school was never an option that either my husband or I ever considered.
Rachel becomes somewhat the forgotten child as the story goes on. If you could imagine her as an adult, what would she be like, and how do you think she would be affected by what happened to her family when she was young?
It makes my heart twist to consider the long-term consequences for Rachel. I can only assume that such a disturbing experience would run very deep and have lasting consequences. This is a girl who grew up in a house where nothing is what it seems and people are not entirely straight with you about what is going on. A sibling might disappear, return, then vanish again. I would imagine that Rachel as an adult will have trouble establishing relationships and trusting in their continuity.
Which character did you enjoy writing the most?
When I began writing the novel, I didn’t much care for the narrator, Julian Poulter. He holds so many views that are diametrically opposed to my own, and if I met him at a dinner party, I would find too pompous and emotionally repressed. But it turned out to be very liberating writing from his point of view for precisely those reasons: he offered me a new perspective on all kinds of issues and made me challenge many of my long-held assumptions. Julian believes it’s important not to delve into painful emotions, for example, whereas I had always believed that happiness comes through an honest engagement with our hidden selves. And I came to see him in may ways as a victim of his boarding school education. In time, to my surprise, I grew genuinely fond of him, and when the book was finished found I rather missed him.
Did you always know you wanted to write the novel from Julian’s perspective? Did that decision hinder or help you in telling this story?
From the outset I felt the story would be more intriguing if I could tell it at one step removed. I wanted the reader to have to peer over the shoulder of a narrator who had a vested interest in establishing the truth yet is continually kept at arm’s length for the unfolding action. Though Julian is the reader’s filter for everything that unfolds, it gradually becomes apparent that his own agenda is almost certainly corrupting his interpretation of events. We learn that he is emotionally repressed, that he has in many ways resented Dan; yet he is so sexually and romantically obsessed with Annie that he is ultimately ready to try to will himself into a state of myopia about what is occurring. All of which helps to add a sinister uncertainty to the story and means the reader is hopefully tantalized by having to try to discern not only what is actually going on but also exactly how much to trust Julian’s interpretation of the events as they unfold.
Your first novel was also about a family in crisis. What interests you about these situations and why do they make for good reading?
I grew up in a home that was fairly stable until I became a teenager, when our family circumstances changed quite abruptly and life became very turbulent. The effects of this were far-reaching and have taken some time and determinnation to unravel. But I am struck by how common this experience is, by how many of us—perhaps most of us—in different ways, at different times have endured periods when the home environment in which we hoped to be protected and nurtured becomes instead a place of turbulence and distress. For me there is catharsis in stories which delicately unpack crisis—and comfort to be derived from recognizing how universal this experience of conflict is. And I think it’s also reassuring to be reminded of the way in which people can and do ultimately survive.
In addition to writing novels, you are also a critically acclaimed filmmaker. How is the process of writing different from making films?
I had directed lots of documentaries and drama before I signed a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster; and the move from filmmaking to novel writing was initially something of a shock, since I had always worked closely with a tightly knit team and actively relished the creative camaraderie. It took time to adjust to the intense isolation of sitting alone for weeks that became months and ultimately years—and to a process that is at times dangerously close to schizophrenia: an intense ongoing conversation with yourself.
The other early surprise was an unexpected attack of indecisiveness. As a filmmaker I was often frustrated by people’s reluctance to talk publicly about the most interesting aspects of their story. Not to mention constrained by the restrictions of budget and logistics that always limited what you were actually able to achieve. But it was only once these restrictions were lifted that I realized how difficult it is to make a decision once anything is possible. In a novel my characters could have a sex change, sprout wings and circle twice round the world, and no one was going to tell me it wasn’t possible. Rather to my surprise, I found my fingers lingering uncertainly over the keyboard, the options suddenly so overwhelming, I couldn’t quite think how to begin.
Can you tell us a little about your next novel?
In the scorching temperatures of an August heat wave, three generations of the Bower family gather in Ibiza for a lavish party to celebrate banker William’s fiftieth birthday on his newly completed luxury estate. He hopes the celebration can help forge some kind of reconciliation with his estranged daughter, Alice. But as a newly committed environmental campaigner, she turns out to be horrified by what she sees as his assault on the diminishing resources of the island. This novel will explore fragmenting family bonds and the fragile future of our planet.