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Avenue of Mysteries
Table of Contents
About The Book
In Avenue of Mysteries, Juan Diego—a fourteen-year-old boy, who was born and grew up in Mexico—has a thirteen-year-old sister. Her name is Lupe, and she thinks she sees what’s coming—specifically, her own future and her brother’s. Lupe is a mind reader; she doesn’t know what everyone is thinking, but she knows what most people are thinking. Regarding what has happened, as opposed to what will, Lupe is usually right about the past; without your telling her, she knows all the worst things that have happened to you.
Lupe doesn’t know the future as accurately. But consider what a terrible burden it is, if you believe you know the future—especially your own future, or, even worse, the future of someone you love. What might a thirteen-year-old girl be driven to do, if she thought she could change the future?
As an older man, Juan Diego will take a trip to the Philippines, but what travels with him are his dreams and memories; he is most alive in his childhood and early adolescence in Mexico. As we grow older—most of all, in what we remember and what we dream—we live in the past. Sometimes, we live more vividly in the past than in the present.
Avenue of Mysteries is the story of what happens to Juan Diego in the Philippines, where what happened to him in the past—in Mexico—collides with his future.
Reading Group Guide
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Juan Diego—a Mexican-born writer—leaves his home in Iowa and heads to the Philippines in order to honor a promise made long ago. During his travels he sometimes chooses not to take the medicine prescribed for his heart because it makes him feel “diminished,” and he begins to experience his past much more vividly than his present. Juan Diego dreams of his youth in Mexico and gets lost in recollections of the shocking moments and mysterious happenings that made him who he is: of his mind-reading sister, Lupe, and his mother, Esperanza; Rivera, the man who was “probably not” his father; the loving couple who adopted him; and the colleagues, clergy, and circus performers who changed his life.
Irving’s fourteenth novel explores the hold the past has upon us and the tension—both cultural and personal—between faith and reason. The tale of one man from the Mexican basura reveals a sweeping allegory of all that is mysterious: the incomprehensible and unfathomable things we struggle to make sense of and of the strange events, coincidences, and convergences that shape our course and fill our life with wonder.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Where does the title of the book come from? Why do you think Irving chose it? What is the Avenue of Mysteries and why is it important to Juan Diego? How does the title correspond to the major themes of the book? What are some examples of mysteries in the novel? Are they ever demystified or explained? How do Juan Diego, Lupe, Vargas, and the other characters respond to and feel about mysteries? Do they share a unified point of view?
2. At the beginning of the novel, readers learn that Juan Diego doesn’t want to be identified as Mexican American. Why? What does this tell us about him? How does Juan Diego choose to identify himself?
3. What are the “two lives” that Juan Diego says he lived and why does he say that he lived them “on parallel tracks”? Where does Juan Diego say is where he “lived most confidently, and with the sweetest sense of knowing who he was”?
4. Does Avenue of Mysteries ultimately suggest whether such a thing as fate exists? Does Juan Diego’s life seem to be determined by fate, by his own choices, or by coincidence? How do Lupe’s predictions contribute to a dialogue about fate in the novel?
5. Evaluate the treatment of religion and faith in the novel. Consider the discussions of religion that take place between Juan Diego and his sister, between Vargas and Eduardo, and between Eduardo and Juan Diego. Which of the characters have religious faith and which do not? What are the reasons for their faith or lack thereof? What causes Juan Diego to feel that he had “an ax to grind . . . with certain social and political policies of the Catholic Church”? What does Juan Diego say that he had “instead of religion”?
6. Who is Flor and what is her relationship to Juan Diego? How does Irving depict the transgender experience? How does Eduardo feel about Flor? What can we learn about love and relationships from her interactions with Eduardo?
7. What does the novel reveal about the relationship between fiction and autobiography? What does Juan Diego say is the most important thing about his novels? Where does Juan Diego say the ideas for his novels come from? What does Juan Diego believe constitutes good writing? Who does Juan Diego believe are the best readers? Do you agree? Why or why not?
8. Evaluate the portrayal of women in the novel. What does the novel indicate about gender and womanhood? What does Lupe’s mind reading reveal about the treatment of women in this society? How do the passages about Guadalupe and the Virgin Mary contribute to this dialogue?
9. Juan Diego embarks on a physical journey to the Phillipines, but he also embarks upon a journey through dreams and memory. Why does he set out on his physical journey and what happens to him along the way? How is he changed by these experiences? Does he ever reach his destination? What other journeys—physical or symbolic—do he and the other characters take? How are they changed?
10. Why do you think Lupe chose to crawl into the lion’s cage? Does Juan Diego understand her motives for doing this? How does he come to terms with her death? Why do you think that Lupe ultimately asked to have a Catholic funeral despite the feelings she expressed about religion?
11. Miriam and Dorothy appear and disappear throughout the book. Who are these women? How does Juan Diego feel about them? Would you say that he trusts them? Why or why not? How do they compare to or differ from the other female figures in the story?
13. Who is el gringo bueno? Why is he in Mexico? What role does he play in Juan Diego’s life? What does Juan Diego promise himself after talking to el gringo bueno?
14. Why does Lupe refer to the statue of the Virgin Mary as “the Mary Monster”? Why does she prefer icons representing Guadalupe to those of the Virgin Mary? How do these icons compare to the statue given to her by el gringo bueno? What was your reaction this gift?
15. Irving has said that he begins his novels by writing the last sentence. Evaluate the final sentence of the book. How does it tie in with the major themes of the book? At the conclusion of the novel, what does the author say that people really want when they die? Do you agree?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Compare Avenue of Mysteries to other novels that include the collision of faith and reason as a theme. What do these books seem to have in common? Which storytelling devices or styles seem to be most successful or persuasive among the various works? Would you say that Irving offers a new or different perspective? Explain.
2. The journey is a universal motif in literature. How does Juan Diego’s journey compare to the ones undertaken by characters in other novels you’ve read? What common themes emerge? Discuss an important journey that you have taken or wish to take. How has it changed your life or how do you believe it might?
3. Consider some of the political and cultural issues addressed in the novel, such as poverty, the Vietnam War and draft dodging, and the AIDS crisis. How does Avenue of Mysteries introduce and treat these topics, and what message does it offer on these subjects?
4. In Avenue of Mysteries, Irving revisits some of the motifs featured in his previous works. Examine and evaluate the recurring motifs in Irving’s oeuvre. What images and symbols recur? Why do you believe Irving chooses to reuse these motifs from book to book?
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (November 3, 2015)
- Length: 480 pages
- ISBN13: 9781451664188
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Raves and Reviews
“From the first page to the last, there is a goodness to this novel, a tenacious belief in love and the redemptive power of human connection, unfettered by institutions and conventions. This belief, combined with good old-fashioned storytelling, is surely why Irving is so often described as Dickensian. But John Irving is his own thing, and so is his new novel. Avenue of Mysteries is thoroughly modern, accessibly brainy, hilariously eccentric and beautifully human.”
– The New York Times Book Review
"An empathically imagined, masterfully told, and utterly transporting tale of transcendent sacrifice and perseverance, unlikely love, and profound mysteries."
– Booklist (starred review)
“A richly detailed, imaginative and beautiful novel, with a series of events that seem equally bizarre and resoundingly universal.... It is a complex and many-layered novel that covers a lot of intellectual, moral and emotional ground, but in the end, it is the simplest, saddest and most wonderful tale of the human condition. It is about what we all fear: finding people to love, and then losing them, too.”
– The Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“A dream-steeped, enchanted, and often amusing tale.... Irving keeps this imaginative story, his aging novelist, his odd cast of characters, and his readers, moving on a trajectory toward collision in this unfailingly masterful narrative.”
– USA Today
“In its early pages especially, Avenue of Mysteries is laugh-out-loud funny.... Yet as funny as the new novel often is, Irving’s reconsideration of earlier themes seems more somber here. The novel explores questions of belief and disillusionment, chance and choice, the mundane and the miraculous. Avenue of Mysteries is a provocative and perplexing novel.”
“Irving has always been a consummately convincing realist, in matters both great and small.... While writers of later generations seldom come close to achieving Irving’s levels of verisimilitude, his realism is transmogrified by his general whimsicality and by his attraction to baroque extrapolations of the absurd. This sort of ambition... is part of what makes Irving such a prodigious entertainer.... This novel is not autobiographical, but it does present an aging artist with a sacred wound, tremendous desire, and an endless appetite for wonder.”
– The Boston Globe
“Juan Diego’s memories of adolescence around 1970 in Oaxaca compose some of the most charming scenes that Irving has ever written. He’s still an unparalleled choreographer of outrageous calamities that exist somewhere between coincidence and fate.... Those conflicting currents of spirituality flowing through Avenue of Mysteries add to Irving’s rich exploration of faith in several earlier novels.”
– Washington Post
"A vivid writer about sex."
– The New York Times
“Like all of Irving’s novels, Avenue of Mysteries is about awakening — to the past, to hidden emotions, and to the truth and weight of trauma and childhood. Only this time, the narrative is dreamier and more ruminative.”
– Minneapolis Star Tribune
“The character is a captivating original; his tale includes humor, pathos, and acute observations. Once again, Irving charms by blending the fantastical with what is deeply, affectingly real.”
“A wild and rollicking ride.... Irving plays delightful havoc with this colorful collection of humanity, beguiling us from start to finish.”
– Seattle Times
“This sprawling, imaginative tale about a writer whose life’s journey has all the qualities of a modern Dickens novel is vintage Irving.”
– AARP Magazine
"The outsize characters on the two vast alternating canvases Irving paints are more varied than the acts in a circus caravan.”
– Philadelphia Inquirer
“The novel is a remarkable feat... as Irving ignores the constraints of conventional fiction and tosses all of his ideas into his novelist’s blender and turns it on high.”
– Dallas Morning News
“Irving proves his prose still packs a punch in Avenue of Mysteries.... It’s good to see that this popular and insightful literary magician still has a few tricks up his sleeve.”
– Portland Press Herald
“Avenue of Mysteries is full of Irvingisms — the transvestite, the circus, the orphanage, the character who can’t speak, the car accident, the missing father, the weird Christianity. These elements are part of the fun for fans: hearing the familiar rhythm, finding the trademark components fit together in a novel way.”
“Delivers Irving’s typical blend of humor and tragedy.”
– Houston Chronicle
“Meaningfully dark and classically quirky.”
– Las Vegas Weekly
“Once again, Irving’s lyrical writing grabs readers from the first page.”
– Library Journal
"An entertaining, phantasmagoric look at the childhood that shaped a writer’s life.”
– St. Louis Post Dispatch
“The novel's tone moves easily from drama to comedy to tragedy, the perfect mix for a film adaptation someday. Casting will probably take time — these characters are so unique. Until then, lose yourself in this tale from one of America's pre-eminent storytellers.”
– Associated Press
“Have had a hard time putting down Avenue of Mysteries. A new John Irving novel is always like an unexpected gift.”
“Irving works his familiar themes—Catholicism, sex, death—with a light and assured touch.... A welcome return to form.”
– Kirkus Reviews
“In describing what Juan Diego goes through, Mr. Irving is something like a magician showing the audience how the rabbit actually pops out of the hat. Perhaps more than in any other of his books, Avenue of Mysteries demonstrates what is under the hood – what goes on in writers' minds.”
– Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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