This reading group guide for Josefina's Sin includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Claudia H. Long. 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.
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Josefina, a sheltered landowner’s wife living a quiet life in 17th century Mexico, receives an invitation from the Marquesa to act as a lady-in-waiting in the elite royal court. She is reluctant to leave her family, but the desire to move beyond her small sphere and expose herself to the intellectual and cultural pursuits she has always longed cannot be denied. Accompanied by the beautiful, cunning Angelica, Josefina finds herself stepping into a complicated world of political and personal rivalries and deceptive, licentious behavior.
Unexpectedly, Josefina finds kinship in the nuns who study the arts at the court, writing literature and poetry at the risk of persecution by the Spanish Inquisition. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz opens Josefina’s eyes to the evocative power of words and through them, the nature and consequences of love, and the dangerous threat of the Holy Office. Josefina begins a tumultuous journey, from a secure wife and loving mother, to a woman seeking to understand her desires and dreams, while trying to avoid the treacherous pitfalls of the court. Eventually, she triumphs, managing to find herself in the difficult, confusing, and ultimately fulfilling world. TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
- The title of the novel is Josefina’s Sin. In the end, what did you feel Josefina’s sin truly was? Did you feel that what happened to her was just, or was she the victim of the sins of those around her?
- Josefina’s Sin has a cast of female characters who are strong and independent. However, each is motivated by her own ambitions to the point of betrayal. Do you feel these woman would have been stronger had they attempted to form real friendships—like Luz does—instead of turning on, or using each other?
- Think about all the different women who influence Josefina’s life. What does she learn from each of these women at various points throughout the novel?
- Early in the novel, there is a very powerful scene in which a Jewish poet recites a verse, the first poem that touches Josefina in a way she can’t understand. Discuss the juxtaposition of love and hate, clarity and uncertainty, art and religion, as evoked by this scene.
- Power, and the balance of power, play an important role in every relationship throughout the novel. Angelica’s power lies in her beauty and ability to dazzle. What do you think Josefina’s power was? Sor Juana’s? Discuss how each character, at one point or another, manipulates or abuses their power to achieve a particular end. In your opinion, do many of them succeed?
- How do you view the various examples of marriage, romance, and sexual relationships in this novel? Consider Josefina and Manuel, Josefina and Alonso, Juana and Alonso, the Marques and the Marquesa, and Angelica and Manuel. Based on your reading, what do you make of attitudes toward marriage during this time? What about attitudes regarding fidelity, sex, or love?
- What one adjective do you think best captures the character of Josefina? Were you surprised by how others in your group perceived her? What are her strengths and her weaknesses? How is your perception of Josefina altered throughout the story? How do you think she herself changed throughout the story?
- The novel is full of examples of blighted ambition and characters trapped by circumstance. Do you feel that unhappiness excuses the scheming behavior or betrayals of some of the more antagonistic characters (consider Angelica, the Marques, the Marquesa, Granada and Eustacia)? Or did you find them entirely unsympathetic?
- It might be said that Josefina’s take on religion is much simpler at the beginning of the novel than it is at the end. What did you think about the portrayals of religion versus spirituality and the relationship between passion and faith? Do you think that her exposure to the complexities of faith changed her for the better?
- The triangle of Juana, Alonso, and Josefina is one of the most intricate plot points of the novel. Do you believe that Alonso truly loved them both? What did you think of Juana’s final confession that, in a way, Josefina was no more than an instrument to complete the passion she and Alonso could never share? Do you feel that Josefina was unwittingly used, or did she willingly place herself in the middle of their passion?
- Josefina reflects “The Bishop was merely a shadow, and my love for him had been but a love for an idea of a man, not a man himself.” (394) Do you feel this realization is entirely true? Do you think it is possible to love someone for what they represent and what they have given you, without ever truly loving the actual person?
- Did Josefina’s decision to return to court surprise you? Why do you think she went back? Do you think it was the right choice?
- Josefina easily forgives Manuel’s relationship with Angelica. Do you feel she let the betrayal go too passively, or that she behaved in the only way she could, to keep her husband’s love? Do you think she would have been as forgiving had she not carried the guilt (and proof) of her own infidelity?
- At the end, Josefina is stunned by her realization that no one else understands Juana’s final poem except her. Do you believe that words only contain as much power as we project into them, based on our emotions and desires? Do you agree with Alonso who believes we only understand what we wish to understand, and that every poem contains a different meaning for each person who hears it?
- How did you react to Josefina’s vow at the conclusion of the novel: “I will read the whole poem before I leap into the stanza alive.” (p. 445) What do you think the words mean, to Josefina? What do they mean to you?
A CONVERSATION WITH CLAUDIA LONG Sor Juana was the focus of your thesis in college, and plays a very important role in the novel. What drew you to her in the first place?
- From cooling jamaica (hibiscus water), to soothing tamarind water, to green chiles with cream filling and buttered tortillas, the novel is filled with descriptions of food. Have everyone prepare a traditional Spanish or Mexican dish to bring to the meeting.
- Do some research on the real Sor Juana, and have every member present a fact or two. Are you surprised by what you learn? How does the real-life figure compare to her portrayal in the book?
- Compare this novel to other historical fiction depicting court life such as The Other Boleyn Girl or Captive Queen. How are they similar? How are they different? If Josefina’s Sin was made into a movie, whom would you cast?
- Poetry and the power of words are vital to the novel. Have each member read a favorite poem and compare interpretations. Or, discuss Sor Juana’s poems (both those in the book and others). Do you have a favorite?
The 1970’s were tumultuous years, and feminism in literature was a hot topic. I loved Sor Juana’s Carta Atenagorica, in which she dared to challenge a Bishop and proclaim a woman’s right to study and learn. She did this at great personal risk, and in the end she was forced to renounce her beliefs and sign her confession in her own blood. These were powerful images in an undergraduate’s mind!Though Juana’s words and actions greatly influence her life, this is very much Josefina’s story. What was your inspiration, not only in writing this tale, but in writing it from Josefina’s point of view?
I didn’t set out to write Sor Juana’s story, but rather the story of a woman whose life Sor Juana touched. Like me, Josefina is drawn by the secret greatness and power of Sor Juana. It was never clear historically why Sor Juana recanted the first time. It was only as Josefina came to life on the page that I realized that Josefina would write Sor Juana’s first "recanting" of the Carta. It was a way for me to be part of Sor Juana’s mystery. The title of the novel is such an interesting, provocative one. What does it mean to you?
Well, it was meant to catch your eye! And make you want to know what the sin is. Then I lay it out on the first page, so you realize that there’s more to sin than the common, almost banal one of adultery.The novel is rich in sense of place and atmosphere. Is a lot of this historical texture created through heavy research? Which characters, aside from Juana, are based on real-life figures? How did you make the determination whether or not an imagined event, dialogue, or action was authentic? Did you come across anything that surprised you while delving into the history of this time period?
Unlike many historical novelists, I am primarily a student of literature. I get most of my historical sense of time and place from the plays and poetry of the time. I am looking for texture and flavor, how people ate, dressed, traveled, married and mourned. How was love expressed in a poem? Death or desire in a play?
I wasn’t looking for actual events. I even fictionalized the Marqués and the Marquesa de Condera, merging two families into one. There is no reason at all to think that the Marqués de Mancera or the Conde Paredes were as licencious as our Marqués, though if you look at a portrait of the Marqués de Mancera it isn’t hard to imagine him behaving reprehensively!
But the way the Viceroyal court functioned, the way that the Inquisition operated, were all historically researched.You describe many of the lovely gowns worn at court in great detail. Do you have a particular interest in the fashions of the age in which Josefina lives? Was it fun writing about the details of the styles and fabrics of the time?
I’m more of a food person than a clothes person, but I looked at the art of the era for ideas about clothing. Again, I did most of my research through the creative arts. I looked at paintings to see how a woman dressed for a portrait if she was a landowner’s wife, or if she was a courtier.Josefina struggles to master the art of turning her thoughts into poems in the novel. Describe your writing process. Are you also a poet? Or was Josefina’s poetry in this book your first venture?
I love poetry. I love to read it because it is the distillation of the most complex human emotions into a single, intense image. The poet takes the enormity of the human experience and compresses it into a stanza of words bound together by energy. The reader takes that tiny poem bundle and releases the explosion of force to re-create the multifaceted and overwhelming experience. How great is that?!
As to writing poetry, every undergraduate writes poetry! So I have been writing poetry since the seventies, but I have never achieved that perfect intensity. I prefer the full range of the novel.Many authors find that their characters are extensions of themselves, in one way or another. Do you find that to be true? Which character do you identify with most? Do any of the characters in Josefina’s Sin carry a resemblance to people you know?
Every character in Josefina’s Sin has a small part of me, even the Marqués. But they are all fictional creations. Each owns a bit of my heart. I did steal Angelica’s voice from a friend, because I most definitely can’t sing!Do you plan to revisit Josefina’s world in your next novel? Or are you moving on to an entirely different time, place, and cast of characters?
In my next book we do return to Josefina’s world, twenty years later. In 1711, Consuelo, the mayor’s daughter, is fighting for her family’s safety while the Inquisition, in its waning moments, seeks to expose her family secret. Josefina’s son Juan Carlos has grown into a very interesting young man with secrets of his own.Who are your writing influences and what are you currently reading? Did you look to other popular historical novels such as The Other Boleyn Girl for guidance?
My absolute favorites are Arturo Perez-Reverte’s Captain Alatriste series, beginning with Purity of Blood.
I read them in English and Spanish, some of them twice! I was also influenced by The Coffee Trader
, by David Liss, and Lucrezia Borgia and the Mother of Poisons
, by Roberta Gellis. They plunge you into the personal dramas of another world and provide you with an understanding of your own reality all at once.