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This reading group guide forThe Very Thought of You 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.
In the summer of 1939, as the impending German Blitz looms on the horizon, thousands of children are evacuated from London to the secluded English countryside. Among them is Anna Sands, a quiet but determined eight-year-old girl who soon finds herself living in a vast manor house on the Ashton estate in Yorkshire.
Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton are an enigmatic, childless couple, struggling with their slowly unraveling marriage. In an attempt to salvage their life together, they open their home to these children—turning the estate into a school and attempting to keep the war from entering their isolated little world. But in doing so, they irrevocably change the course of their own relationship.
Anna, sensitive and observant, soon becomes aware of the secrets and intimacies that live behind closed doors in the house, enacted in shadow by its occupants. Growing deeply attached to the gentle, compassionate Thomas, she ultimately finds herself part witness, part accomplice to his love affair—an affair that she does not quite understand, an affair whose unforeseen and unexpected consequences changes their world forever.
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. The title of the novel is The Very Thought of You. Discuss the power of thoughts as a theme in the novel. How do internal realizations, observations and perceptions shape the various characters’ views of the people around them? How do these unspoken thoughts influence the paths they take? What does the title mean to you?
2. Elizabeth Ashton is a complex character. She is blighted by her inability to obtain the one thing she wants most, to the point of madness. Do you feel that—in a way—she is more trapped by her inability to have children than Thomas is by his disability? Why or why not? Do you feel that her deep unhappiness excuses her behavior and final betrayal? Or did you find her entirely unsympathetic? How much of the fault in their damaged relationship do you feel lies with Thomas?
3. Thomas tells his students, “Things are not always quite as they seem.” The theme of appearance versus reality recurs throughout the book. Discuss some obvious (and not so obvious) examples of this theme. Do the characters use appearances as a shield? As a mask? Is there a difference? What happens to the various characters when appearances are ripped away to reveal the realities beneath?
4. After the death of Thomas’s two brothers, his mother says to him: “‘I believe you have luck with you.’” (p. 75) Do you think this is true? Why or why not?
5. Anna witnesses two deeply personal moments that leave a lasting impression on her, all involving Thomas. The first is when she spies the naked Elizabeth in their bedchamber, screaming at him in her drunken despair. The second is when, stuck in the wardrobe, she hears Thomas and Ruth making love. How do you think these moments affected her, her view of Thomas and her ideas about love and relationships? What other moments during her time at Ashton might’ve contributed to these views?
6. Did adult Anna’s similarities to Elizabeth Ashton (drinking, feeling disconnected from her husband, feeling the unquenchable pull of wanting something more, engaging in affairs) surprise you? Why or why not?
7. There are various examples of marriage, romance and sexual relationships in this novel. Based on your reading, what do you make of the attitudes about marriage during this time? What about attitudes regarding fidelity, sex or love? Do you think the impending war had any role in the way relationships were formed and carried out in this novel? Provide examples.
8. Ruth presses a forget-me-not flower between the pages of her book of Tennyson’s poems, with a note that says: “Think what you have meant to me.” She does this as a reminder to herself, as a marker to the knowledge that she is in love. But in the end, her note becomes a message. Discuss the importance of those words, and the idea of this message, in relation to Thomas, Ruth and Anna.
9. Using the following two quotes as a starting point, discuss the connection between light, love and the importance of memories throughout the novel.
• “It was on one of these runs in 1941 that Anna gazed out across the gardens in the long light of evening, and was lost in a moment of complete happiness. . . . She ached with a sense that the light would soon leak away, and the day too—and then how would she remember all this? She stopped still, and looked back, trying to hold this moment fast in her heart.”(p. 209)
• “Today was a glorious day. There was a glow to the evening light which fired the trees into a green so radiant that I could feel the life of each leaf. . . . I was blessed with this recognition: that everything was illuminated by the auxiliary light which you once gave me. You may be gone, but you gave me love.”(p. 307)
10. Did you feel Thomas was right to tell Anna that he had, in fact, thought about her all those years—that she did mean something to him? If he hadn’t said this, do you think she would’ve been as shocked and devastated to read his final letter to Ruth?
11. At various points, Thomas, Ruth and Anna all observe that perhaps “just to have loved was enough.” Do you think they truly believe this? Do you believe it?
12. In her poem, “Back to the Old House,” Anna writes, “For a place is a time too.” Discuss the meaning of this line. Has there ever been a time in your life that felt like home?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Poetry and the power of words are vital to the novel. Have each member read a favorite poem. As a group, discuss your interpretations of and reactions to each poem.
2. From the leaves of the aspen tree to Ruth’s forget-me-not, nature plays an important role throughout the novel. Bring in a favorite leaf or flower and tell the group why it means something to you. Like Ruth, try pressing your finding in a favorite book. For a list of flowers to press and ideas for using your pressed flowers, visit http://gardening.about.com/od/craftsanddecor/a/PressedFlowers.htm.
3. Compare this novel to other historical novels depicting WWII , such as Ian McEwan’s Atonement or Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton. How are they similar? How are they different? If The Very Thought of You were made into a movie, who would you cast for Anna, Ruth, Elizabeth and Thomas?
Rosie Alison grew up in Yorkshire, and read English at Keble College, Oxford. She spent ten years directing television documentaries before becoming a film producer at Heyday Films. She is married with two daughters and lives in London. This is her first novel.