This readers group guide for City of Flickering Light 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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When Irene Van Beck jumps off a moving train to escape her harrowing life in burlesque, she sets in motion a series of life-changing events for herself and her friends Millie Martin and Henry Weiss. The unlikely trio has high hopes of making it big in Hollywood, but the road to stardom is arduous. The friends have only one another to turn to as they face brutality, poverty, and near hopelessness in an unfamiliar city. In the end, all three create lives that are rich in success and modern flair, but not before they learn invaluable lessons about love, loyalty, and self-acceptance. Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Irene, Millie, and Henry each have their own particular shortcomings to grapple with over the course of the story. How do they compare to those of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz
? Are they able to overcome these difficulties in the end, and if so, how?
2. Each of the main characters has been separated from their families in some hostile or tragic manner. Though they don’t know one another very well at the beginning of the novel, Millie claims Henry with the words “you are ours” by its end. How were they able to create this unconventional “family” so quickly and securely? How do you think this bond will impact baby Ivy as she grows up?
3. When Millie is raped in Chapter 13, Irene ponders how she was raised to think that it only happens to “bad girls.” Neither Millie nor Irene ever considers reporting it. Did this aspect of 1920s Hollywood life surprise you, or was it expected? Do you think Millie and Irene handled the situation as best as their status allowed? What might you have done differently?
4. Were you surprised by Eva Crown’s statement in Chapter 34 that “there are a lot of women directors,” given that there are relatively few today? It’s true that women did enjoy more power in the industry’s early days than they currently do. Do you think there could ever have been a Hollywood #MeToo movement in the 1920s?
5. In Chapter 16, when Agnes offers Millie heroin, did this humanize Agnes for you or make you dislike her even more? Does her pain explain her behavior? Were you surprised by the easy availability of drugs?
6. The road to success is harrowing, yet even in the darkest moments of the story there are glimmers of humanity, such as when Eva Crown gives Irene the book on screenwriting. What are other examples of hope and generosity you find in the novel? In the end, does the portrayal of 1920s Hollywood feel optimistic? Do you think it’s easier or harder to break into filmmaking today?
7. Henry’s sexual orientation isn’t revealed until halfway through the novel; in fact, he tries to hide it even from himself. Was he able to hide his sexuality from you, the reader, or did you guess early on that he might be gay? How does Henry eventually come to terms with being in love with another man?
8. Each chapter in City of Flickering Light
features a quote from a famous silent film star, director, cameraman, or screenwriter. One of these is John Barrymore’s: “Happiness often sneaks through a door you didn’t know you left open.” How does this quote serve as a theme for the novel as a whole? Which was your favorite quote and why?
9. Which character did you identify with the most? Which character did you like
the most? Are they the same?
10. Which stars of today remind you of characters in the novel?Enhance Your Book Club
1. Host a movie night with your book club and watch a silent film together. A few suggestions:Beyond the Rocks
, starring Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson Robin Hood
, starring Douglas Fairbanks Stella Maris
, starring Mary Pickford (written by her friend Frances Marion) The Kid
, starring Charlie Chaplin Hell’s Hinges
, starring William S. Hart The Sheik,
starring Rudolph Valentino (See what made women swoon!)
Have each person make up a silent film star name for themselves. You could also watch the thirteen-part documentary Hollywood
to learn more about this bygone era, but that will take multiple nights!
2. In Chapter 28, Dan offers Irene greenthread tea, a traditional Navajo beverage, to soothe her. The simplicity and kindness of this act, coupled with Dan’s patience and quiet strength, contributes to Irene’s falling in love with him. Purchase some greenthread tea for your book club (available online at various sites, including https://www.slowfoodusa.org/ark-item/greenthread-tea
). Over tea, talk about a simple gesture or moment that made you feel loved.
3. Read The Vanishing American
by Zane Grey, the popular novel that sparked the fight between Irene and Dan. Then watch the silent film version with Richard Dix. Does this help you better understand why Dan had such a strong reaction to Irene’s script?
4. Talk about the novel with the author! Juliette Fay is happy to discuss the novel by Skype or other video format with groups of five or more, subject to availability. To schedule, contact her at www.juliettefay.com/for-book-groups/book-group-chat-request/