Touchstone Reading Group Guide Nectar from a Stone
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1. In Chapter 1, Elise wonders if her servant's, Annora's, stories about spiders are true: that "to their webs spiders entice fallen souls who only appear to poor human eyes as trapped moths or mites, before herding them to Purgatory." But, she recalls, Annora also said the "creeping things were a blessing in the house, because they could miraculously absorb the poisonous Pestilence vapor, bind it to the spots on their backs." What stories have you heard about spiders? What is the significance of the spiders in this book?
2. What kind of tone does the opening chapter set? How did the author maintain that feeling throughout the novel?
3. Why does Jane Guill choose Elise and Gwydion as her main characters? In what ways do these two people reflect their time period, social standing, and cultural norms? In what ways do they defy them? When they first meet, it seems Elise and Gwydion are repelled by each other. Yet they grow to love each other deeply. What do you think Elise and Gwydion have in common? What about them is very different?
4. The medieval church approved doctrine that established woman as the bearer of Original Sin. How do you think this affected the household dynamic between husbands and their wives? Do you think we are still feeling the effects today? How did the Church's stance touch the lives of the men and women in Nectar from a Stone?
Compare some of the marriages and couples in the novel.
5. Elise puts up with Maelgwyn's abuse for two years. What are some of the reasons a woman might stay with such a man? Compare the situations of medieval women in abusive marriages with abused women today. Do you think Elise had any other choice but to kill Maelgwyn? Imagine yourself in her time and place: what would you do? Why do you think it took her so long to kill him? How does her marriage to Maelgwyn affect Elise's feeling about men and love?
6. In chapter 11, Elise and Annora meet a monk and his flock of lunatics at an inn in the village of Dolwyddelan. In the fourteenth century, those branded as "insane" may actually have been suffering from a wide variety of illnesses, both mental and physical. Some may not have been ill at all. Do you think these men are really mentally ill? Why or why not? What about Maelgwyn and Sir Nicolas? How do they compare to the monk's patients and to each other?
7. The author seems to imply that Maelgwyn suffered some abuse at the hands of his mother. How much do you think this affected his adult behavior? What other factors might have contributed to Maelgwyn's evil? How much of his abuse of Elise is based on fear of her power? How much might be based on a fear of women in general? Do you think he is truly pious? Do you feel any sympathy for him?
8. In the Middle Ages, medicine was more superstition than science. When the doctor visits Gwydion on his sickbed in Llanrhychwyn, he suggests a number of incredibly painful-sounding treatments. In fact, Gwydion himself is less than interested in the doctor's cures. Why do you think medieval communities were willing to accept torturous treatment from male doctors as opposed to the traditional herbal remedies of local "wise women"? Can you name some of the political implications that caused and were caused by this shift?
9. Though Annora is her servant, Elise treats her as a friend. Elise's treatment of Annora might have been considered unusual by other members of the noble class. What do you think Elise's behavior toward her beloved servant says about Elise herself? Would she have treated Annora differently if she were happily married instead of living in a hostile environment and in need of an ally? What role does Annora play in Elise's life and in the unfolding story?