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Was It Something I Said

Reading Group Guide

    Reading Group Guide
    The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion for Valerie Block's Was It Something I Said? We hope that these ideas will enrich your discussion and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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    1. Some reviewers have compared this book to a Jane Austen novel. Austen's novels clearly reflected the middle-class values of her time. What values are most important to the people of this book? Decide on five and list them in order of importance.
    2. Does this novel use the classic love story plot of Boy meets Girl, Boy gets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy gets Girl? Can you identify where each major change in the relationship occurs?
    3. Do you think it's significant that Barry and Justine begin their relationship in a plane crash? Is it symbolic?
    4. In what ways does author Valerie Block reveal Barry's character? What does his love of Beatles music show about him? Why do you think Justine is so attached to the film, The Sound of Music?
    5. In what ways are Justine and Barry different? In what ways are they similar?
    6. Is it important that Justine and Barry are Jewish? Is it essential to the story, or just a superficial element? In the same way, the story takes place in New York. Would it work just as well in Chicago?
    7. Do you think Barry and Justine have a better chance at sustaining their relationship than their parents did?
    8. A subplot revolves around Pippa and Vince, who don't end up together. Why not?
    9. Vince, who has a major role early in the book, fades out of the novel. Do you think this is a flaw?
    10. What is the significance of the death of Justine's grandmother, Miriam? How does it change Justine?
    11. At the end of Chapter 17, what is the meaning of the last line, "God was a research psychologist, and he, Barry, was clearly in the control group"?
    12. Why do you think this book is titled "Was It Something I Said?" What makes this novel so much fun to read?

    Q: Tell us something about the writing of this book. What gave you the idea? How long did you work on it?
    A: I began the book with Pippa. I'd heard about a college student who was cooking for two bachelors. That's all I heard, and although I had the opportunity to find out more about the situation, I didn't really want to know. Initially, Justine was Barry's problematic ex-girlfriend, and she disappeared after dinner. But her issues interested me, and I realized she might make a good match for Barry. Around this time I discovered that although these were people I didn't necessarily approve of, they intrigued me. I gave them names I disliked, and problems that annoyed me. This made it possible for me to write more freely about them since no one could ever construe them as me. Of course, ironically, everyone automatically assumes the book is autobiographical. It took six years and six drafts to complete the book.
    Q: You chose to use the Beatles as the music Barry carries around in his head and uses to define his experiences. Why? Are you a fan?
    A: A huge fan, and from a very early age. When I began the book, I felt a bit self-conscious writing from a male point of view. When I realized that a man around my age, with my taste in music, might consider John Lennon and Paul McCartney as different models of how to behave as an adult male, I was fine. To be frank, I think on some level, I got it wrong: my brother is also a Beatlemaniac, but he approaches it from an entirely different angle. He can tell you on exactly what date the Abbey Road sessions began, and how many takes they needed to get each one right, and who was hanging around the studio that day. It's like baseball statistics. This clearly a male approach, and although it can be amusing, that degree of minutiae can get tedious pretty quickly.
    Q: You've been compared to Philip Roth. Do you consider yourself, in the way Roth does, a Jewish writer?
    A: The comparison to Philip Roth is very flattering -- I'm a big fan of his. Well, certainly, I'm a Jewish writer. I'm only uncomfortable with the label if it implies that I'm dealing with Judaism as a subject. In this novel, I wrote about people who happen to be Jewish, who are grappling with -- among other things -- the lack of religious structure in their lives. When my great-grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe, all the religious ritual was lost or discarded in a single generation. I was raised with the idea that being a Jew was about culture and history, and the memory of adhering to religious law was enough. That being said, I've always been acutely aware of being Jewish, and I know that this book is considered a Jewish book, or a New York book. All writing in America is categorized by how it differs from White suburban secular male Protestantism, which is considered 'normal.' So if you want to call me a Jewish writer, then go right ahead. I don't make the distinction, but then again, where I come from, being Jewish is the norm.

About the Author