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This reading group guide for Prospect Park WestbyAmy Sohnincludes 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.
Brooklyn’s famed Park Slope neighborhood has it all: sprawling, majestic Prospect Park; acclaimed public schools; historic brownstones; and progressive values. In the park, at the coffee shops, and on the playgrounds, four women’s lives come together during one long, hot Brooklyn summer. Melora Leigh, a two-time Oscar-winning actress, frustrated with her career and the pressures of raising her adoptive toddler, feels the seductive pull of kleptomania; Rebecca Rose, missing the robust sex life of her pre-motherhood days, begins a dangerous flirtation with a handsome neighborhood celebrity; Lizzie O’Donnell, a former lesbian, wonders why she is still drawn to women in spite of her sexy husband and adorable son; and Karen Bryan Shapiro finds herself consumed by two powerful obsessions: her four-year-old son’s wellbeing, and snagging the ultimate three-bedroom apartment in a well maintained, P.S. 321–zoned, co-op building. As the women’s paths intertwine and sometimes collide, each one must struggle to keep her man, her sanity . . . and her playdates.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. We’re introduced to each of the four protagonists at a low point in their lives; each suffers from the loss or absence of something important to them. What is it each woman feels she lacks? Compare and contrast their needs and desires. Do you think they have a lot in common, or are they very different people? What aspects of yourself do you see in these characters, if any?
2. Religion subtly influences how these women live their lives. For example, in the first chapter, Rebecca reveals that despite her misery, her Jewish upbringing has taught her to eschew divorce as something deeply shameful. Explain the ways in which religion and spirituality influence the worlds of Rebecca and Karen.
3. The author honestly and unabashedly explores the many facets of motherhood through her four protagonists and their husbands. Rebecca and Lizzie, for example, wonder if having a baby was the right decision, while Karen’s whole life revolves around her desire to have a second child. Melora’s ambivalence about childbirth led her to adopt. Describe how each couple seems to feel about having children and how they have or have not adjusted to this major life change. How do you feel about the ways in which they have, or haven’t, changed after becoming parents? If you have children, how did parenthood change you? If you don’t have children, did this book alter the way you see motherhood?
4. In Amy Sohn’s Park Slope, identity is an all-consuming concern for people, including some of her main characters. How do the characters of this novel define themselves and others? How do your perceptions of these characters match up with their perceptions of themselves?
5. To what extent does the author use aspiration as a theme in the novel, especially with regard to the title? Is it a good or bad thing to compare yourself to others? Why did she call the book Prospect Park West when only one of the characters lives on that street? Talk about the symbolism of the park throughout the novel, such as when Lizzie and Rebecca meet there and when Rebecca walks around it at the end.
6. Rebecca realizes that she kissed Lizzie because “it had been so long since she’d been touched by a grown-up. Touch was like water or food; you needed it or you’d shrivel into nothing” (page 72). What else does motherhood deprive these four women of? How does having a child affect the lives of their husbands?
7. Sohn uses many real-world references, such as celebrity characters, television shows, shops, events, even the presidential race of Barack Obama. What effect did this have on your reading experience?
8. Karen, who thinks of herself as progressive for her career in social work and for having married a Jewish man, actually displays a lot of racist characteristics, such as omitting her husband’s obviously Jewish last name when she thinks it will be a detriment, or resenting the black children who overrun the “white playgrounds” in the summer. And she’s not the only character concerned about ethnicity. Identify moments in the novel where race issues emerge. What do you think the author is trying to do with these moments?
9. Though we begin with four protagonists who are struggling with relatively common concerns and problems, these women slowly become enmeshed in soap opera–level disasters of their own making. Do these characters cross from sanity to insanity? Did their disasters affect how well you were able to identify with them? Did your sympathy for them change over the course of the novel? Why or why not?
10. When Rebecca and Stuart finally have sex, did you feel happy for Rebecca? Did you feel bad at all for Theo? How about Melora? Discuss how this moment influences your opinion of each of these characters.
11. In “Page Six,” (pages 189–198), we see Melora quite literally falling apart. How does the author use physical appearance in this and in other chapters to illustrate what’s going on with her characters emotionally? Why do you think it takes such extreme circumstances before these women can find solutions to their problems? Do you find this an authentic reflection of reality? Why or why not?
12. Lizzie observes of Rebecca that “this was why she would never make real friends. You couldn’t make friends if all you ever thought about was yourself” (page 357). And yet, Lizzie’s entire “friendship” with Rebecca has revolved around Lizzie’s desire for her and manipulations to force a sexual encounter between them. Do you think Lizzie has really learned her lesson? Do you think any of the women have? Discuss where they are at the end of the novel compared to where they began.
13. How do you feel about Melora’s epiphany, courtesy of Dr. Levine: “This was what happened when you learned to tolerate frustration. Everything fell into place” (page 364). What signs are there that things may not be as wonderful as Melora seems determined to believe they are? How does her new mantra apply to the lives of the other women in the novel?
14. The endings for each of the four couples are very different. Discuss the last four chapters. Does anyone get a truly happy ending? Why do you think the author chose to avoid a “neat” conclusion to the story?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. If you live in the region, make a field trip to Park Slope to see firsthand how well Amy Sohn’s version lives up to reality. If you don’t live in the New York area, do a little research to find out where the progressive new moms, or bohemian bourgeois breeders, in your town or city hang out. Play investigator: see if some of the same prejudices and behaviors present themselves in the “Teat Lounge” or playgrounds of your area by hanging out and eavesdropping. Or, play journalist and interview some of the moms you meet there.
2. Not all celebrities live in Los Angeles or New York City. Make a list of your five favorite celebs and see if you can track down where they live using the Internet. Bonus points for anyone who can identify other places where American celebrities tend to cluster.
3. To learn more about the author and her influences, check out her blog at www.amysohn.com. You can also read the FAQ for some hilarious and surprising insights into Amy Sohn’s work and process. After reading some of her articles and her blog, discuss with your book club how much of Amy seems to have ended up in her fiction, especially Prospect Park West.