This readers group guide for A Perfect Universe 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.Introduction
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Children too wise for their age, a mother who only wants to win on The Price Is Right
, a musician who emerges as the sole survivor from a collapsed building, and more honest characters populate Scott O’Connor’s short story collection A Perfect Universe
. The author of Half World
, Scott O’Connor weaves a piercingly emotional, observant, and realized cycle of stories in the tradition of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad
and Annie Proulx’s Close Range
Set in the corners of suburban California, these stories blend tales of courage, disappointment, and hope, as characters search for meaning and redemption amidst parenthood, grief, coffee shop lines, and long days at the hospital. With themes of celebrity, failure, and young children taking care of their adult parents, A Perfect Universe
invites you into characters whose lives are so familiar that they will begin to resemble your own streets, neighbors, and sometimes yourself.Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. The young musician who survives in “Hold On” has a ghostwriter working on telling his story. He has a hard time recounting the story in a way that the ghostwriter is satisfied with. What is a traumatic or life-changing event that you have lived through? How would you feel about someone else writing it down for a book to make a profit?
2. The survivor in “Hold On” feels some level of guilt that he is the only one who made it. How is that guilt portrayed, and what seems to be the best remedy to it?
3. In “It Was Over So Quickly, Doug,” which narrator do you most readily identify with and why?
4. Until page 23 in “It Was Over So Quickly, Doug,” we know the genders of two of the characters (the barista and the businesswoman), but not the third. Based on how that third character’s voice is written before his gender is revealed (page 23), how did you picture him?
5. In “Jane’s Wife,” Liz and Jane begin to drift apart when Jane’s artistic career takes off and Liz continues to struggle for success. Who are real-life celebrity examples who seem to have this same problem? How do you think drifting apart can be avoided in those situations?
6. The game show The Price Is Right
drives Diane forward to make life changes in “Golden State.” Why do you think this game show is so important to her?
7. Meg, the sister who hears voices in “Interstellar Space,” would have been a “great beauty,” according to her mother on page 107. When her mother says this, Meg’s sister responds angrily. Why do you think Meg’s physical appearance is so important a thing for her mother to hold on to? When people deteriorate mentally, how does physical appearance play a role in how they are treated by broader society and even their own families? Does a mentally ill person who is conventionally attractive have an easier time dealing with life? Why or why not?
8. Opening lines are essential for any writing, but especially important in short stories, when the writer has less time to grab your attention. Look back over the stories in A Perfect Universe
and re-read each opening line. Which ones do you think are the most effective and kept you reading? Why?
9. “In the Red” tells the story of Jonas, who we eventually discover has physically assaulted his girlfriend. However, since we don’t know that at the beginning of the story, it’s easy to have sympathy for Jonas’s character, for his loneliness. Discuss the idea of having sympathy for abusers. How is it helpful for us to understand where men in that mindset are coming from? Alternatively, how could understanding be harmful?
10. Several of the stories in A Perfect Universe
(“Soldiers,” “Golden State,” and “Colnago Super,” especially) are told from the perspective of children who take care of their parents and have a better grip on reality than their parents. Why do you think this is a theme in the collection?
11. Richard (in “The Plagiarist”) and George (in “Flicker”) are both male celebrities who have either embarrassingly failed in their careers or are about to. What does fame mean to each of these characters? Discuss how each of them handles failure differently.
12. In “The Plagiarist,” Richard has an episode of panic after he discovers that Lydia is about to expose him. He has a dream involving himself and a woman in a medical clinic: “His body, her body, had turned murderous, and so they were pumping her full of poison” (p. 209). What do you think this dream means to the rest of the story? Who or what does the woman symbolize?
13. The stories in A Perfect Universe
are primarily set in the suburbs of California—away from the bustle of Los Angeles and glamour of Hollywood. How does this setting unite the stories? What about suburban California makes a realistic setting for these stories?Enhance Your Book Club
1. In “It Was Over So Quickly, Doug,” the pacing and scene setting feels a bit like a movie scene. Ask each person in your book group to write a two-page screenplay (dialogue and scene details included) about their last experience in a coffee shop line.
2. In “Golden State,” the game show The Price Is Right
drives much of the plot forward, and physical objects give important hints to the wealth of the characters (Bruce’s truck, Diane’s blue dress that she has to wear twice, Claire buying a beat-up used bike). Play your own version of The Price Is Right
with your book group, and then discuss the importance of physical objects. What items’ prices are each of you most familiar with and why?
3. The movie and book The Glass Castle
by Jeannette Walls deals with young children having a somewhat stronger grip on reality than their adult parents and having to take care of their parents frequently. Watch the movie as a group, and then discuss how the themes of The Glass Castle
also relate to the short stories “Soldiers,” “Golden State,” and “Colnago Super.”
4. Short stories rely on precise, image-rich words. Even shorter stories abound online and can pack a similar emotional punch. Research “six-word stories” on the internet, and have each member of your group pick a story from A Perfect Universe
and rewrite it as a six-word story.