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This reading group guide forLove in the Years of Lunacyincludes 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.
Set in the Kings Cross neighborhood of Sydney in 1942, Love in the Years of Lunacy is a war-torn tale of love and jazz. Pearl, just shy of her eighteenth birthday, is the impetuous daughter of showbiz musicians. She plays saxophone in an all-girl jazz band at the Trocadero and occasionally sits in on underground gigs with her twin brother Martin, who also plays the sax. When the enlisted American G.I. James Washington breezes into the Booker T. Washington Club one night and brings down the house with his tenor sax solo, Pearl is hooked. Their budding romance unfolds against the blacked-out nights and rumorfilled days of a city in the grip of war. In the face of mid-century attitudes about race and gender, and the looming threat of the Japanese, this is the story of two young musicians in love, and their struggle to stay together against increasingly unlikely odds.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The book’s title draws on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera, also about a young woman who is forbidden from seeing the man she loves and instead marries a doctor, a very rational and organized man. In what ways does this novel portray love and rationality as opposing forces? How does it explore the idea of love as an illness? If you’ve read the Marquez novel, how do you think it compares to Love in the Years of Lunacy?
2. In Pearl’s instructions to her nephew, she tells him that she has always been better with music than words, and asks him to “pretty up” her story, to “make it sing.” What is the importance of the narrator being a novelist? How do you think the story is affected by his ability to make it sing, and how might it be different if Pearl wrote the book herself?
3. When Pearl first performs at the Booker T. Washington Club, she notes, “It seemed as if everyone in the room was still staring at her, appraising her skin, her hair. She’d never felt so white, so completely naked.” How are Pearl’s ideas about race and ethnicity informed by her early experiences with American jazz music?
4. After Pearl loses her virginity to James during the air raid, James says: “This is all new for me. And I guess it’s new for you, too. So let’s keep this to ourselves, okay? At least until we know each other better.” Were you surprised by this admission? Who does he want to keep their romance a secret from?
5. During her first lessons with James, Pearl says they “excited her more than a rollercoaster ride, especially when James put his arms around from behind, placed his hands on hers and applied pressure to her fingers against the saxophone keys.” How are music and physical pleasure connected for Pearl? Why do you think there is such a strong bond between the two?
6. James tells Pearl, “You gotta learn how to improvise. Take risks.” How does the theme of risk-taking play out throughout the novel? Do you think the risks are worth the rewards?
7. Pearl attempts suicide after James breaks off their engagement and plan to run away together. This period also finds her without Martin for only the second time in her life. In what ways does Pearl rely on Martin for her confidence and sense of self? How much do you think his absence contributed to her depression?
8. Hector recommends that Pearl avoid any “extreme behavior” as part of her recovery, including late nights, drinking, or associating with musicians. It becomes clear, however, that Hector disapproves of these things even once she has recovered. Do you think Pearl makes the right choice to end their relationship? If James had not reappeared that night outside the Trocadero, do you think Pearl could have lived a happy life with the “Master of Lunacy”?
9. Were you surprised by Pearl’s plan to take Martin’s place in the army? Do you see her decision as a rational act or an act of passion? Is it possible for her plan to be both?
10. Once Pearl’s unit has seen more than enough of the war, and suffered losses of its own, her mission becomes greater than just finding James. What does the music they play provide for the soldiers? What does playing for them provide Pearl?
11. It’s clear that Pearl has won the respect of Sergeant Rudolph as both a soldier and a musician. Why do you think he is so angry when he discovers that she is a woman, impersonating her brother Martin?
12. The forces that bring Pearl and James together seem to be equal to the forces that continually kept them apart. If they had both survived the war, do you think they could have found a way to stay together?
13. Were you surprised to find that Jimmy, the narrator of this story, was in fact Pearl’s son, not her nephew? Do you agree with her decision to keep this truth from him?
14. In the opening lines of the novel, Pearl says to Jimmy on the recording, “I want you to play these tapes one by one, and as you listen, write down the story I’m telling you. In writing our story—the story of me and Martin—you’ll also be writing your own.” How does this prove to be true in more ways than one? Why do you think Pearl asks Jimmy to write her life story? And which years and whose lunacy do you think the title of the novel refers?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Put together a jazz soundtrack for your book club, including some of the greats that James Washington played with in the novel, including Count Basie, Lester Young, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Chick Webb, not to mention Artie Shaw—the favorite of James, Pearl, and Martin— who toured the Pacific Theater with his Navy Band throughout WWII.
2. If you don’t want to serve authentic soldier’s rations, like tinned bully beef, at your book club, consider hosting an afternoon tea inspired by the South Pacific. Sweeten your favorite with Leatherwood Honey, found only in the Tasmanian rainforests, and pair with some Tim Tam chocolate biscuits. If you’re feeling ambitious, you could even whip up some Lamingtons! For a recipe visit: australianfood. about.com/od/bakingdesserts/r/Lamingtons.htm.
3. Mandy Sayer acknowledges a number of books that helped her research Love in the Years of Lunacy. To learn more about the jazz world of this era, consider checking out All on One Good Dancing Leg, by Joan Clarke; Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of Australia’s All-Girl Bands and Orchestras to the End of the Second World War, by Kay Dreyfus; Black Roots White Flowers: A History of Jazz in Australia, by Andrew Bissett; A Showman’s Story: The Memoirs of Jim Davidson, by Jim Davidson; Meet Me at the Trocadero, by Joan Ford. Another alternative for some background material is the Ken Burns’ acclaimed documentary, Jazz.
Mandy Sayer has written several books of fiction and nonfiction. Her awards include the Vogel Literary Award, the National Biography Award, the South Australian Premier’s Award for Nonfiction, the Age Book of the Year for Nonfiction and the Davitt Award for Young Adult Fiction. Sayer is a regular columnist for the Australian newspaper and the Wentworth Courier. She lives in Sydney.