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This reading group guide forWhat We’ve Lost is Nothingincludes 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.
On the first warm day in April, as Mary Elizabeth McPherson ditches high school, a series of break-ins rock her neighborhood; the burglars invade her house as she sits in her dining room, stoned with a friend. Mary Elizabeth’s community, Oak Park, is a suburb in flux. Nestled on the edge of Chicago’s gritty west side, Oak Park offers two stark lifestyles: to the west, theaters and shops frame posh homes and buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. To the east, adjacent to Chicago’s Austin Community Area, lies a neighborhood still reeling from urban decline. The community’s Diversity Assurance Program has curbed destructive racial housing practices, but cultural integration has been tenuous at best. In the center of the community sits Mary’s house on Ilios Lane, a pristine cul-de-sac dotted with quiet homes that bridge Oak Park’s extremes. As the aftermath of the burglaries unfolds over the course of twenty four hours, the residents of Ilios Lane must take stock of the world they believed they lived in, and the world many of them were attempting to create.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The novel opens with Caz and Mary walking to Mary’s home, but only picks up the second half of their story at almost the very end of the book. How does this technique influence your reading of the rest of the novel, and your perception of the characters, especially Caz? How does this flash-forward serve to make the rest of Mary’s story all the more surprising?
2. Between the novel’s epigram, the blog post comment on page 203, and the name Ilios Lane itself, the Homeric references are clearly no accident. What effect do these references have on your understanding of the story, either on the level of plot or theme?
3. Contrary to most of the adults in the novel, Mary seems to think of the burglaries primarily as an opportunity, specifically to boost her “standing in the high school caste system”(p. 2). Are there other examples of opportunity arising out of loss? Do you see this phenomenon in the real world as well?
4. One of the many themes in the novel is the futility of parents trying to keep their children completely safe—as Susan muses early on, “The world had a way of reaching that child…” Do you agree with this sentiment, or is it pessimistic? How would your understanding of this idea shape your role as a parent or caregiver?
5. Michael’s storyline may be intended to demonstrate the truth of the idea that, “one meanness can spur another” (p. 24). Did the burglaries change Michael, or just give him a little push into action? Do you find this idea to be true, that trauma and tragedy can bring out the worst in people, in addition to, or alongside the best?
6. The disappearance of Arthur’s notebooks—his life’s work—devastates him in a singular way. What are we surprised to find we value once it’s gone? What do we value that we think is untouchable?
7. Sofia’s family provides a unique perspective on the burglaries. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of their response? In our own lives, how do we draw on tradition and experience to help us cope with tragedy, as Sary and Dara do with their spirit house?
8. How do the addition of other voices, through the blog posts, listservs, and emails included in the text, affect the story and your interpretation of it? What does the addition of these alternative media forms do that the author cannot?
9. Susan’s story helps us to understand the story of Diversity Assurance: the history, the positive effects, and the limits all come to light over the course of the novel. How does her story symbolize the pros and cons of Diversity Assurance? How does the novel explore these ambiguities?
10. “What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you?” What do you make of Arthur’s theory about this question? Are the ‘worst things’ the things that ultimately define us? What about people without an easy answer to that question?
11. Re-read the James Baldwin quotation on page 104. How does this excerpt alter your understanding of the novel, in its relationship to history and progress? How much have things really changed since the time it was written?
12. Compare and contrast Susan and Michael’s perspectives on change and possibility on page 153. Which side of the fence do you come down on? Why?
13. The meeting of all the Ilios Lane residents on page 108 highlights one of the central themes of the book—the idea that after the initial contact with the police there was nothing for them to do about the crimes. How do the various inhabitants respond to this? Why do you think it is so hard for us to cope with inaction?
14. Alice’s quest for peace of mind prompts her to happily sign up for an expensive and elaborate alarm system. What does peace of mind really mean to Alice? What does it say about peace of mind if it is so easily destroyed, and so easily regained?
15. In many ways the novel can be read as a meditation on the value of diversity and integration. How did reading What We’ve Lost is Nothing change your perspective on these issues?
16. Why do burglaries take away our sense of control? What do the various characters do in the effort to regain this control? Is our sense of control real, or is it a comforting illusion?
17. Dan’s rant on pages 234 – 235 encompasses many of the themes of the novel and provides a unique perspective on the burglaries. What do you make of his points? Do you agree with his perception that the Ilios Lane residents wrongly thought of themselves as immune? What causes us to feel that way?
18. Susan’s run forms an emotional climax to her story, and to the novel as a whole. What effect did these passages have on your perception of her, and of the novel’s themes? What do these sections say about prejudice and perception?
19. The title of the novel, taken from Michael’s speech, is deliberately ambiguous, and resonates for each character in different ways. What do you make of it, having finished the book? What does it say about loss, possessions, and values?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Rachel Louise Snyder writes extensively about programs like Diversity Assurance, as well as other social issues. Read some of her nonfiction articles, many of which can be found on her website RachelLouiseSnyder.com, and report what you’ve learned to your group. What does Snyder’s nonfiction reveal about the novel and its themes?
2. Research the history of diversity and integration in your neighborhood, or one you’ve lived in. In addition to researching online, try visiting your town’s historical society or interviewing someone with a different perspective. How has your town or city’s relationship to diversity changed over the past fifty years? How does its pattern match or deviate from the one depicted in What We’ve Lost is Nothing?
3. We all have a unique relationship to issues of diversity and social programs designed to encourage it in our communities. Write a short piece to share with your group about your own personal relationship to these issues and the effect they’ve had on your own life.
4. Rachel Louise Snyder is an active participant on social media networks, get in touch to share your group’s experiences with What We’ve Lost is Nothing.
Rachel Louise Snyder is a writer, radio commentator, and professor of creative writing at American University. The author of Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade,she has contributed regularly to NPR’s All Things Considered and she hosted the public radio series, Global Guru and Latitudes. Her writing has appeared in TheNew Yorker, TheNew York Times Magazine, Slate, Salon, TheWashington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the New Republic. Originally from Chicago, she has lived in Boston, London, and Phnom Penh, and currently lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and daughter.