This reading group guide for Juliet’s Answer includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Glenn Dixon. 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. Just be aware that this material may contain spoilers!Introduction
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A lovelorn, seemingly “star-cross’d” English teacher takes the trip of a lifetime to heal a broken heart and better understand the nature of love in this charming memoir that is part Eat Pray Love
, part Under the Tuscan Sun
, and part Shakespeare.In fair Verona where we lay our scene . . .
After his long-burning love for a friend goes unrequited for the last time, and in spectacularly dramatic fashion, Glenn Dixon seeks a new perspective on love in the most hallowed setting imaginable: Verona, Italy. A longtime English teacher, Dixon hopes that the setting and historical context of Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet
will help him untangle his own feelings. While in Verona, Dixon joins the Secretaries of Juliet, a group dedicated to answering each and every one of the love letters from around the world addressed to Juliet. His new, temporary role helps him cope with his own heartbreak while learning that love is a force no matter the language.
While in Verona, Glenn also surveys the historical and cultural impact of Romeo and Juliet
. Is their story in fact true? How and why did Shakespeare fictionalize aspects of it? How does this midsize city handle all the tourism—and heartache? Upon his return, Glenn brings the story to life in the classroom, trying to impart the power of love and the brilliance of Shakespeare to his students.Juliet’s Answer
is a highly personal and historical chronicle of love for the modern age.Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. What was your reaction to learning that there is an enterprise behind answering letters to Juliet? Is there a responsibility to answer the letters?
2. Do you think that seeking advice from a semifictional character from a romantic tragedy is either romantic or tragic?
3. Is there a common trait shared by the secretaries? Do you think you could manage to be one of them?
4. What has your experience with reading Shakespeare been like throughout your life? Do you think you read and appreciate him differently as an adult than you did as an adolescent? Why or why not?
5. Can you think of any other literary settings so uniquely tied to their books and characters as Verona in Romeo and Juliet
? Have you or would you ever visit any of them?
6. How would you characterize Glenn’s teaching style? Does he remind you of any teacher you had during your school years?
7. Were there any new revelations for you about Shakespeare and/or Romeo and Juliet
8. Describe Glenn and Claire’s relationship. Are they wrong in how they treat each other? How would you describe Glenn’s reaction to Claire’s big reveal?
9. Has the digital age changed how we experience love? If so, do you think it’s for better or for worse? If not, then explain your reasoning.
10. Have you ever taken a trip to heal yourself? Was it cathartic? Do you think that going on an adventure to somewhere new and different helps us learn and heal?
11. What role do you think timing had to play in Glenn and Desiree’s budding relationship? Do you think that “timing is everything,” acts as a principal factor in all relationships?
12. How do Glenn and Desiree complement each other? What type of future do you envision for them? Enhance Your Book Club
1. A knowledge of Shakespeare’s play is crucial in reading and understanding this book. Watch a production of Romeo and Juliet
, be it on-screen or onstage, before discussing Juliet’s Answer
2. Write your own letter to Juliet to read to the group. For anonymity’s sake, ask the group members to type their letters and put them into a bowl to be selected at random. Briefly discuss the letter and provide a group response.
3. Have each group member name a travel destination to learn more about love and explain his/her reasoning. Why did s/he choose this place and why is it so evocative? If the group is able to reach a consensus, take a trip together to a nearby place to do some reflecting and talking in a new setting.A Conversation with Glenn DixonThe book ends on a happy note, but it still begs the question: What is your current relationship status? If we are to judge from your social media accounts, you are still together and happy
Yes, things are great. This really is the best relationship of my life. Desiree and I travel often. In fact, we were just in Verona for another visit, and we managed to see almost everyone mentioned in the book. They’re all doing well, too. And as the epilogue suggests, Desiree and I go to Mexico (and other warm places) in the gloom of the Canadian winter. She surfs and works on documentary films. I’m building up the courage to start another book. We support each other and both of our lives are the better for it. She’s the best thing that has ever happened to me.Was it at all hard revisiting your relationship and feelings for Claire while laying them bare for readers? Is there any type of relationship left with Claire?
It was tremendously difficult. Those are very painful memories. I thought long and hard about even wanting to write about them, but I thought if I’m going to write a book about love, then I need to be honest about everything. Of course, when I began the book, I had no idea what was waiting for me, but once it happened, I knew it had to be in the book. It would be a complete sham if I left that out. Unfortunately, Claire and I barely talk anymore. She has her life and I have mine, but I do want to be very clear that I wish her loads of happiness in the life she’s chosen. I believe I said that in the acknowledgments. I’m quite worried that she’ll be hurt by this book, but this certainly was not my intention. I’ve done everything I can to protect her privacy while still being able to tell the story. I know she’ll be a great mother to her son. I know that and respect that. Maybe someday we can be friends again. I’d like that. But it will take time, probably years, and I guess that’s how it has to be.Was the structure of the book—alternating between your personal story and travels, the classroom, and research about the nature of love—one you envisioned from the outset? Or was it something that happened organically, weaving itself together as you wrote?
Ha. I often say now that about halfway through the writing, I realized that I wasn’t writing this book anymore, this book was writing me. My agent was phoning me almost every week, asking, “What’s happening now? My God, what’s happening now?” I couldn’t possibly have predicted what took place. I had no idea at all of the calamitous events awaiting me when I first had the idea to go to Verona and answer letters. And of course I had no idea about Desiree. If you must, call it star-crossed. I’m just saying that I couldn’t possibly have planned any of this. This was the surprise of a lifetime.Writing about a topic as broad and universal as love had to be a daunting task. Were there any such moments that felt that way? As a writer, what was your process for synthesizing such a big theme?
I looked at a tremendous amount of research on love before I began to write. Initially I thought I’d include a lot more of it in the book, but the story sort of took over and the research largely got left behind. Still, it gave me a grounding and an overview. I think for me, there was always that . . . well, tension is not the right word, but push and pull between synthesizing the research and the very real things that were happening to me (and what was happening to the hundreds of people whose letters I answered). I guess all of it was also wrapped around Shakespeare’s exquisite story, too, something I knew inside and out from my long years of teaching. In the end, it all came together: all the pieces of the puzzle fit, and I do think that I was given a real answer about love. I hope something of that comes through in the pages of this book. I hope that every reader will find part of his or her own answer in this book.Any advice for teachers about bringing Shakespeare into the classroom? What did you find that worked well to engage students? What caused them to tune out?
Shakespeare is meant to be acted, not read. I think that’s key. A line-by-line analysis is dead boring, even if Shakespeare did produce some of the greatest writing in the English language. More than anything else, Shakespeare is meant to be seen and heard. I never had the students read silently on their own; we always read it together—out loud, sometimes even in a Scottish accent. We analyzed the films, too, acting as film critics. We looked at how texts can be adapted and what decisions directors make in filming. I think all of that is important in today’s world. We live in a media culture, and I wanted the students to have some familiarity with how films are put together, what works emotionally and what does not. And of course they were at the age when sex and love is predominant in their brains, so it wasn’t really that hard to get their attention with Romeo and Juliet
. I’d like to think there were takeaway points, things they could apply to their own lives. And that is pretty much why Shakespeare is so great. His stories and his words really do transcend time and place. He really does speak to what’s human in all of us.While you are teaching Romeo and Juliet, you have to handle the fact that one of your students is being thrust into an arranged marriage. What was it like having classroom discussions on the power of love and the sacredness of marriage, but then realizing that it’s not always a possibility for others in some cultures? Do you regret involving yourself?
For most of my career as a teacher, I worked at a high school that was incredibly diverse in terms of the students’ cultures and language groups. I’d done a M.A. in sociolinguistics, so I was always fascinated by different mind-sets and how those are encoded in language or clothing or, yes, even different ideas concerning sex and marriage. We spoke openly in class about all of this. The story of the girl in the arranged marriage was absolutely true (though of course I can’t say anything about the actual student it happened to, only that her name wasn’t Sadia), and the situation did end the way it ended in the book. We were also lucky to have at that school some tremendous outside resources—cultural interpreters (not just translators) who worked with families and, yes, in that particular year, a social worker who specialized in working with immigrant families. It might not have turned out that way if these people had not been in place. I just drew on their resources.Were there any other Shakespeare plays that you enjoyed teaching? Why? Just for fun and purely hypothetically, could you see a project similar to Juliet’s Answer based upon another Shakespeare work?
I taught a few other Shakespeare plays—although not every semester, not like Romeo and Juliet.
. I did also teach (and love) Macbeth
, and yes, I’ve toyed with the idea of writing about that. It would involve not love, but aggression and ambition and assassination, and I’m not sure I’m ready to take that on. I also loved Hamlet
and taught it many times. There’s no doubt in my mind that it is the single greatest work of literature in the English language. There, I’ve said it. The soliloquys of Hamlet (and not just the famous one) are pure genius. There’s no other way to put it.Are you at all in touch with the Secretaries of Juliet? It appears that you were in Verona in September 2016. If so, what was it like to be back?
Yes, absolutely. They are all thrilled about this book. As I mentioned, Desiree and I were just back in Verona. Among other things, we filmed interviews with Giovanna and Manuela and Anna (and Elena, who was mentioned only briefly in the book, but who has been working there for a long time). We asked them very simply what they had learned from answering all these letters over the years. You have to think that they may be among the world’s leading experts on love because of this experience, and they really did have some wonderful wisdom to impart. Look for the video. We’ll post it shortly. It was lovely to be back in Verona again. It really is a beautiful ancient city, with so many things to see. I know I’ll be back again and again and again.You have done some extensive travel writing throughout your career. How was this project different than previous assignments? Any advice for aspiring travel writers?
In my previous books, I basically wrote about a different place in each chapter (drumming in Ghana or lost languages in the Amazon, so many things). I covered a lot of ground. Juliet’s Answer
was the first time I wrote an entire book based in a single city, but what a remarkable city it is. I think my advice for aspiring travel writers would be not to write about the place so much as to write about the stories of the place or, better yet, write about the people you meet there and the stories they tell you. I can say that this is true of all of my books. I always seem to run into the most amazing people, and their experiences and stories and insights, not mine, make the writing great. You need to see the place through their eyes. That’s how you get closest to the truth of a place.What three tips would you offer to the lovelorn?
Wow, that’s a difficult one. I think, though, I would say first: Be hopeful. Love will come again. I think one of the secretaries said it best when she said that you must look after yourself. You must love yourself first and then others can and will follow your example. It’s not easy when you’re heartbroken, but you must pick yourself up. Go do the things you love to do. Be with yourself. Find your bliss, as they say, and you’ll be surprised at what happens. I have no doubt that what’s most attractive to people is not looks at all. It’s happiness. It’s confidence. It’s being okay with who you are and what you have to offer the world.