This reading group guide for Goodbye, Paris includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Anstey Harris. 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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Jojo Moyes meets Eleanor Oliphant in Goodbye, Paris
, an utterly charming novel that proves that sometimes you have to break your heart to make it whole.
Grace once had the beginnings of a promising musical career, but she hasn’t been able to play her cello publicly since a traumatic event at music college years ago. Since then, she’s built a quiet life for herself in her small English village, repairing instruments and nurturing her long-distance affair with David, the man who has helped her rebuild her life even as she puts her dreams of a family on hold until his children are old enough for him to leave his loveless marriage.
But when David saves the life of a woman in the Paris Metro, his resulting fame shines a light onto the real state of the relationship(s) in his life. Shattered, Grace hits rock bottom and abandons everything that has been important to her, including her dream of entering and winning the world’s most important violin-making competition. Her closest friends—a charming elderly violinist with a secret love affair of his own, and her store clerk, a gifted but angst-ridden teenage girl—step in to help, but will their friendship be enough to help her pick up the pieces?
Filled with lovable, quirky characters, this poignant novel explores the realities of relationships and heartbreak and shows that when it comes to love, there’s more than one way to find happiness.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss David’s actions at the train station and the ensuing social media frenzy to uncover his identity. Do you see this action as the catalyst for the events that take place in the rest of the novel?
2. Grace and David have opposite reactions when they learn about the pregnancy. Did David’s reaction give you any clues to how he might behave in the future? What did you make of Grace’s special project she was making for her baby?
3. How did Grace’s time spent at university affect the course of her life? What role did her parents play in her path?
4. When Grace plays the cello, she finds herself in an almost trancelike state. What affect do you think playing music has on her? Are there any activities you enjoy where you feel the same way?
5. Grace decides to read Nadia’s diary out of an abundance of curiosity. Do you agree with her decision to read the diary? And how does the information that Grace discovers through reading affect her relationship with Nadia?
6. Discuss David’s confession in Paris, and Grace’s reaction to the news. Did you have your suspicions about David, or did his confession come as a surprise to you? How would you have reacted if you were in Grace’s position?
7. Grace is determined to fix Alan’s violin after the incident in the music shop, but Mr. Williams tells her to focus on the Cremona cello. Why do you think he made that decision?
8. On page 156, Grace thinks, “It dawns on me like daybreak that there are no winners in love affairs, however well-meaning.” Do you agree with that sentiment? In your opinion, is Grace happier before or after the Paris confession?
9. After running into Shota in Cremona, Grace has a renewed sense of confidence and contentment. How much of this change can be attributed to the setting, and how much to the chance encounter with an important person in her past?
10. In Chapter 21, we discover the truth about Nikolai Dernov. What did you think of Grace’s reaction to the news? How does this change the way she views the past?
11. After a surprise win at the Cremona Triennale, Grace confronts one of her biggest fears. What factors contributed to her overcoming her anxiety?
12. Compare Grace’s relationships at the beginning and end of the novel. How have Grace’s social needs evolved over time?
13. Discuss Grace’s relationship with Nadia. Does Grace see Nadia as a daughter figure, or a friend? How do you think Grace will continue to support Nadia in the future?
14. Mr. Williams and Grace have experienced similar heartbreak, but reacted in different ways. What can they learn from each other when it comes to love and friendship?
15. At the end of the novel, Grace must say goodbye to Paris one last time. What else is she saying goodbye to, and how does this mark a new beginning for her?Enhance Your Book Club
1. The city of Cremona, Italy, plays a large role toward the end of Goodbye, Paris
. Dive in to the rich musical history of the area and learn more about the coveted art of violin making. Bonus points: Read The Art of Violin Making
by Chris Johnson or watch the documentary Strad Style
or the film The Red Violin
2. “La Follia” and the “Libertango” define Grace’s attitudes in life throughout the course of the novel. Dig in to the origins of both songs: who were the composers, and what were the songs originally intended to evoke? Bring recordings of each song to book club and listen to them; how do they make you feel?
3. Part of the joy that Mr. Williams brings into Grace’s life is the joy of hearty, homemade food. Task a member (or two or three!) of your book club to make some of the dishes mentioned in the book, including biscuits, cheesy pastries, and homemade pickles.
4. Paris has served as inspiration for a number of authors. Discuss how other books characterize the city, and how they compare to Goodbye, Paris
. Suggestions include: A Moveable Feast
by Ernest Hemingway, The Dud Avocado
by Elaine Dundy, and The Elegance of the Hedgehog
by Muriel Barbery.A Conversation with Anstey HarrisCan you tell me about your research process for Goodbye, Paris? Did anything surprise you?
Mr. Williams came as a complete surprise to me. There are times in the writing process when things seem to be out of the writer’s hands, when the characters become so lively—and the story world so real—that things seem to happen by themselves. Mr. Williams was one of those moments: he literally knocked on the door of the shop! I didn’t know who he was or what his role would be but I knew he was important and that Grace should open the door and let him in.
When I first wrote Nadia, I was living with three angry teenaged girls (my own two daughters and my stepdaughter—our boys seemed easier somehow!) and it was easy to channel their frustration into Nadia. What surprised me, and what was a useful reminder at the time, was her tenderness and her kindness, albeit veiled in swagger. I think it’s helpful to remember that our own teenagers also have that uncertainty and vulnerability underneath all the layers of bluster.
Sadly, the Nikolai Dernov situation was all too real, but I was surprised by the number of female musicians who told me about experiences of sexual assault at college and in their professional life. One woman, a professional violin player, told me that she’d been made aware of the ‘casting couch’ at almost every audition she’d been to: an awful situation.What was your writing process like when you wrote the novel? If you encountered writer’s block, how did you break through?
I didn’t have writer’s block when writing this novel—the story tipped out in a rush. What took time were the rewrites and the edits: so much of writing is in the rewriting. I always tell my students (and I don’t know where this comes from but I didn’t make it up) that a first draft is heaping sand into the sandbox—once all the sand is in, you can start to make a castle. After lots of shaping and remodeling, you get to the point where you can decorate it with seaweed and shells and, eventually, a Popsicle stick in the top.Which character do you identify with most, and why?
I think it would have to be Nadia, although I think it’s fair to say there’s a little bit of the author in most characters we create. I certainly found my teenage years as confusing and isolating as Nadia does.
I identify with Grace in terms of her passion for music. I would love to have Grace’s talent—and her dedication and commitment. I started playing the cello when I was eleven and did anything I could to wriggle out of practice and lessons. I’ve had various teachers as an adult and have got to the dizzying heights of the average seven-year-old.
I would hate to have self-esteem as low as Grace’s, although there have been times when my younger self was on a similar level. Again, kindness is key—if we treat our children right as they are growing up, they can grow terrific armor against such things!You capture the essence of small-town England, Paris, France, and Cremona, Italy, so beautifully. Have you spent time in those locations yourself?
I’ve been to Cremona twice as my husband is a violin maker who has entered the Triennale twice. He is entering again this year (third time lucky?). It’s a magical place: I’m torn between urging you all to go and keeping it for myself.
Paris is etched in my heart and I go there as often as I can. At least once a year, usually more. We live in a small town on the south coast of England so we can actually drive to Paris and back on less than a tank of gas. There is nowhere in the world quite like Paris. I do really believe what Grace says, that Paris—more than any other city—knows about love. Places I’d recommend if you want to feel the heart of Paris beating include Père Lachaise cemetery, Le Marais, Le Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques (only in Paris, really; only the Parisians could bury their pets with such élan) which is in Asnières-sur-Seine, where Grace and David have their breakup, and the cool quiet interior of the Sacre Coeur.
I live in a sleepy town, not dissimilar to Grace’s. Her community is a combination of where I live now and the last town I lived in.Your description of playing the cello is enchanting. Do you have experience playing the instrument, or any other instruments? Are there any songs that you love playing in particular?
I adore music and would love to be a significant player. As it is, I struggle with even the most basic of tunes despite a lifetime’s best efforts.
I love the cello above all other instruments. Last year I bought the album Inspiration
by Sheku Kanneh-Mason and it’s fabulous (he has since played at the royal wedding and achieved the profile he so deserves). I like classical music that can engage people like me rather than experts. And I like the same thing in fiction.
When we moved to this little town by the sea, I had an office on the third floor of our house. I was typing away at Grace’s story when I looked up and saw a man playing the cello in the window opposite. That man was the world-famous cellist Matthew Sharp, who was living in Deal at the time. It is a German version of Matthew (Matthieu Scharf) who plays Grace’s cello in the winners’ concert. When Matt and his family moved on from Deal, they held a party where he played the cello. That was the first time I heard the “Libertango.”I notice that a lot of your previous works are short fiction, for which you have won numerous accolades and awards. Did Goodbye, Paris originate as a short story that grew into a novel, or did you always intend for Grace’s story to be novel length?
Grace’s story was always going to be a novel. I wrote the first draft of it as the dissertation for my Master’s degree at the Manchester Writing School. I chose Manchester as it was one of the few institutions that required a full novel to pass the course. Others required only three chapters and a synopsis and I didn’t see that as challenging enough.You mention on GoodReads that you write about “things that make people tick, the things that bind us, and the things that can rip us apart.” In regards to Grace, what do you think makes her tick?
Grace is defined by her overwhelming lack of self-belief. I see this as a consequence of her time with Nikolai, an experience that could have been so much worse if her parents hadn’t given her such a grounding of love and support. Grace is a talented artist, both in her music and her making, and I think a degree of self-doubt is imperative in turning that talent into success. If we don’t question our own abilities sometimes, I don’t think we can create true art. It’s important to be able to critique yourself—Grace, for a while, lost the balance in that, but meeting Shota again and hearing the truth restored it.I read that you enjoy cooking in your downtime. Did that serve partially as your inspiration for Mr. Williams’s character? If you were on the Great British Baking Show, what would be your showstopper?
I think I associate cooking with caring—I’m not sure what that says about me! I had the idea from the very start that David would, subtly, control Grace’s eating as part of their particular and peculiar relationship. Mr. Williams is the antithesis of that, using cooking as kindness and part of Grace’s recovery in a physical—as well as emotional—sense.
My showstopper would absolutely be pear and frangipane tart with cardamom, and I’d serve it with homemade rhubarb and custard ice cream. I adore cooking and feeding people. This year, we are building a pizza oven in our garden and can’t wait to fire it up with friends (and wine). I love the Bake Off
, even the new Channel 4 version (which I don’t know if you have).I was so inspired by the setting of Cremona toward the end of the novel. Do you believe in the power of a location to change your perspective on life? Have you felt that way about any location you’ve visited in the past?
A. The place that most changed my perspective on life was Iceland. I went there twenty years ago—when tourism on the island was still in its infancy—with my children. The whole country is so steeped in magic and fairy tale; it feels like a whole different planet. I returned two years ago with my husband and we rode Icelandic horses through the volcanic landscape—one of the most moving experiences of my life.There’s a lot left uncertain at the end of Goodbye, Paris. Is there a chance that Grace, Nadia, and Mr. Williams might return in future work?
Sadly I think the only way that these guys would get back together for another novel would be for a funeral. And I don’t think you want that . . .You paint Grace as a sympathetic and delicate character in her relationship with David. While writing, were you conscious of making sure to hit the right chord with their relationship?
This was the greatest challenge of the novel. I wanted to take a character that we are hardwired to despise (in this case, “the mistress”) and add in enough personal circumstances, life experience, and character that we could start to believe in her and her choices, however poor those choices might be.
I have long been fascinated with the way society depicts women in literature (and art)—where you can be the Madonna or Lady Macbeth and rarely anything in between. I wanted to write something that tilted our perceptions of women and their societal roles. I wanted to write about the power of kindness and the fact that we don’t know ANYONE until we’ve walked in their shoes. People are rarely who you think on first meeting them . . .
It was also important to me to paint David’s wife, Dominique-Marie, as a woman in control of her own life and family rather than a passive victim.