ONE OF BARACK OBAMA’S FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2022 * An NPR and TimeBest Book of the Year * Longlisted for the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize (Canada) * Finalist for CALIBA’s 2022 Golden Poppy Awards
A successful art dealer confesses the story of his meteoric rise in this “powerful, intoxicating, and shocking” (The New York Times) novel that’s a “slow burn à la Patricia Highsmith” (Oprah Daily). “You’ll struggle not to rip through in one sitting” (Vogue).
In a first-class lounge at JFK airport, our narrator listens as Jeff Cook, a former classmate he only vaguely remembers, shares the uncanny story of his adult life—a life that changed course years before, the moment he resuscitated a drowning man.
Jeff reveals that after that traumatic, galvanizing morning on the beach, he was compelled to learn more about the man whose life he had saved, convinced that their fates were now entwined. But are we agents of our fate—or are we its pawns? Upon discovering that the man is renowned art dealer Francis Arsenault, Jeff begins to surreptitiously visit his Beverly Hills gallery. Although Francis does not seem to recognize him as the man who saved his life, he nevertheless casts his legendary eye on Jeff and sees something worthy. He takes the younger man under his wing, initiating him into his world, where knowledge, taste, and access are currency; a world where value is constantly shifting and calling into question what is real, and what matters. The paths of the two men come together and diverge in dizzying ways until the novel’s staggering ending.
Sly, suspenseful, and “gloriously addicting” (BuzzFeed), Mouth to Mouth masterfully blurs the line between opportunity and exploitation, self-respect and self-delusion, fact and fiction—exposing the myriad ways we deceive each other, and ourselves.
Reading Group Guide
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This reading group guide for Mouth to Mouth includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with authorAntoine Wilson. 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.
Marooned at JFK in between flights from Los Angeles to Frankfurt, our nameless narrator hears a name over the loudspeaker. It’s Jeff Cook, a fellow UCLA alum who stands out in the narrator’s mind despite their barely being acquaintances. Formerly a “thrift-store Adonis,” Jeff now embodies a familiar relationship with luxury, and after a warm reintroduction to the narrator, he invites him to the first-class lounge. Seated by the window drinking the bar’s complimentary beers, Jeff begins to recount a dramatic turning point in his life. One day before dawn, fresh from a breakup with his college girlfriend, he drove to the beach, where he happened to see a man floating facedown and motionless in the early morning surf. He saves his life, and the man is whisked away by paramedics. Once stagnant, Jeff becomes fixated on the person he will learn is Francis Arsenault, a notorious, high-powered art dealer in Beverly Hills. His obsession leads him to a receptionist job at Francis’s gallery, setting off a series of favors, chance encounters, and deceptions that leave the narrator—and the reader—second-guessing all that came before.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Mouth to Mouth opens with the narrator reflecting on his recent red-eye. Soon after that, he and Jeff Cook reunite, and the latter shares a story of a woman who only flies unconscious, as well as his feelings about going under general anesthesia for a surgery. How do the themes of these narratives—and the rest of the lead-up to Jeff’s saga, including the narrator’s memories and observations—echo throughout the novel?
2. What words would you use to describe Wilson’s writing style? How does his attention to detail impact your reading of the book and its ideas?
3. Two paintings command longer descriptions in Mouth to Mouth: the one that hangs in Francis’s office, and the large diptych that catches Jeff’s eye in Sotheby’s (p. 97 and p. 130). Perform a close reading of the passages in the context of both characters. Is there a deeper meaning to be gleaned?
4. Compare and contrast airport-lounge Jeff with younger Jeff. What adjectives would you use to describe him? Can you pinpoint moments when the younger Jeff starts to resemble present-day Jeff? Even if Jeff was obscuring the ways in which he and Francis are similar, can you identify traits the two men might share?
5. Although the central drama of Mouth to Mouth is between Jeff and Francis (and arguably the narrator), other characters—specifically women—play a major part in the book. In what ways do G, Chloe, Alison, and Astrid affect the trajectory of the plot? How do they each exercise control?
6. Brainstorm some minor characters—for example, Andrea, Saskia, Dennis, and Alex Post. Fill in their lives; what kind of people are they?
7. Consider if, instead of the narrator mediating Jeff’s story, Wilson wrote Mouth to Mouth only from Jeff’s perspective. Does the inclusion of a narrator make it easier or more difficult to form your own opinions? Do you find him trustworthy?
8. Jeff is obsessed with his perceived goodness, and he provides few details that make Francis out to be anything other than an asshole. Do you think the novel makes a case for what makes a moral or corrupt person? How does it comment on the human condition?
9. Jeff’s story seems to have many endings: when he leaves Francis on the mountain, the immediate aftermath of the man’s death and its consequences in Jeff’s life, and the novel’s final line. Knowing all this information, what do you think really happened? What does it mean for your reading experience that the reveal is left ambiguous?
10. Find a sentence or scene in Mouth to Mouth that especially struck you. What is it about this moment that affected you?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Put together a list of other novels that explore art, identity, corruption, and the tangled webs we weave, and discuss how these selections connect to Mouth to Mouth. How does form affect your reading? What did you appreciate about Wilson’s approach?
2. Split up into pairs and imagine you find yourself in Jeff and the narrator’s position: happening upon a person from your past. Write a scene about a pivotal moment in one character’s life in the style of Jeff’s story and the narrator’s commentary. Bonus points if you cast doubt on the storyteller in subtle ways. When everyone is finished, take turns sharing with the rest of the group.
3. Cast the film or miniseries adaptation of Mouth to Mouth. Would Mick Jagger make a cameo as himself?
Antoine Wilson is the author of the novels Panorama City and The Interloper. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, StoryQuarterly, Best New American Voices, and the Los Angeles Times,among other publications, and he is a contributing editor of A Public Space. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and recipient of a Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellowship from the University of Wisconsin, he lives in Los Angeles. His website is: AntoineWilson.com.
“A slow burn à la Patricia Highsmith that keeps us terminally off balance.” —Oprah Daily
“Psychologically complex and suspenseful until the literal last sentence, it uses every word of its 200 or so pages to the fullest.” —NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour
“[An] enthralling literary puzzle… Wilson is a gorgeous writer, pulling you in and compelling you to keep reading. The story, and the story-within-the-story — the twists and turns, the attention lavished on motivation and emotion, the efforts to rationalize or at least explain strange or unsavory behavior — recall the cool prose of Paul Auster… This powerful, intoxicating book’s greatest tension is that we have no idea where it is heading, right up to the shocking final sentence.” —Sarah Lyall, The New York Times
“[A] taut, compulsive chamber piece of a novel, which you’ll struggle not to rip through in one sitting… Mouth to Mouth is an elegantly told and supremely gripping tale of serendipity and deception—and delivers a brilliant ending that will leave you guessing about everything that came before.” —Vogue
“Wilson is a first-rate yarn spinner… [a] sly and energetic novel.” —The Washington Post
“Incredibly taut, with funny and brilliantly described scenes of the Los Angeles art world... [Mouth to Mouth is] powered by a kind of ominous propulsive forward momentum right up until the very end, which is unexpected and inevitable, as all the best endings are.” —Vanity Fair
“A gloriously addicting tale of decisions and deception… Despite the story being a short once, it doesn’t lack suspense — and Wilson’s ending delivers.” —Buzzfeed
“Antoine Wilson’s Mouth To Mouth is the best book I’ve read in ages. Narratively ingenious, delicately written, intriguingly plotted, it is literature of the highest quality. I see you now, dear Reader, with this novel in your hand and already losing track of time….” —Andrew Sean Greer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Less
“Mouth to Mouth is that rarity, a perfect narrative machine, working by its own laws. The cool nervous clarity of the prose enmeshes the reader in a trap of complicity, one snapping shut on narrator and reader at the same instant. Bravo.” —Jonathan Lethem, author of The Fortress of Solitude
"By the end of the slim volume Antoine Wilson has made sure to wallop the reader with the realization that the story has been eerier than they ever realized." —Entertainment Weekly
“A tale of deceit, intrigue, and tested morality...jaw-dropping." —Time, A Best Book of the Year