The Given World

A Novel

The Given World

“Complex and haunting…vivid and unforgettable” (People), this story of one injured but indefatigable young woman is a stunning portrait of a family, a generation, and a country all coming of age.

From a quiet family farm in Montana in the 60s to the grit and haze of San Francisco in the 70s to a gypsy-populated, post-war Saigon, The Given World spins around its unconventional and unforgettable heroine, Riley. When her big brother is declared MIA in Vietnam, young Riley packs up her shattered heart and leaves her family, her first love, and “a few small things” behind. By trial and error she builds a new life, working on cars, delivering newspapers, tending bar. She befriends, rescues, and is rescued by a similarly vagabond cast of characters whose “‘unraveled souls’ sting hardest and linger the longest” (The New York Times Book Review). Foolhardy, funny, and wise, Riley’s challenge as she grows into a woman is simple: survive long enough to go home again, or at least figure out where home is, and who might be among the living there.

Lorrie Moore said, “It’s been a long time since a first book contained this much wisdom and knowledge of the world.” The Given World is “an immensely rewarding and remarkable debut” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).
  • Simon & Schuster | 
  • 320 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781476778044 | 
  • April 2016
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Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Given World includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Marian Palaia. 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.



In her riveting debut novel, Marian Palaia courageously explores love, loss, and survival, offering a candid and unforgettable look at what it means to be human. Unable to come to terms with the disappearance of her beloved brother in Vietnam, Riley leaves her home in Montana behind and sets out on a wild and uncertain journey to find peace. From San Francisco to Saigon, she mingles with a cast of tragic figures and misfits—people from all walks of life, bound by the unspeakable suffering they have endured and their fierce struggle to recover some of that which they have lost. Spanning more than twenty-five years, the coming-of-age story of one injured but indefatigable young woman explodes into a stunning portrait of a family, a generation, and a world rocked by war—and still haunted by it long after.


Topics for Discussion 

1. Why does Riley leave her home in Montana? What informs the choices she makes about where she travels? Does she u see more

About the Author

Marian Palaia
Photograph by Erika Peterman

Marian Palaia

Marian Palaia was born in Riverside, California, and grew up there and in Washington, DC. She lives in San Francisco and has also lived in Montana, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, and Nepal, where she was a Peace Corps volunteer. Marian has also been a truck driver, a bartender, and a logger. The Given World is her first novel.