From one of contemporary literature’s bestselling, critically acclaimed, and beloved authors: a “luminous” novel (Jennifer Egan, The New York Times Book Review) about a fiercely compelling young widow navigating grief, fear, and longing, and finding her own voice—“heartrendingly transcendant” (The New York Times, Janet Maslin).
Set in Wexford, Ireland, Colm Tóibín’s magnificent seventh novel introduces the formidable, memorable, and deeply moving Nora Webster. Widowed at forty, with four children and not enough money, Nora has lost the love of her life, Maurice, the man who rescued her from the stifling world to which she was born. And now she fears she may be sucked back into it. Wounded, selfish, strong-willed, clinging to secrecy in a tiny community where everyone knows your business, Nora is drowning in her own sorrow and blind to the suffering of her young sons, who have lost their father. Yet she has moments of stunning insight and empathy, and when she begins to sing again, after decades, she finds solace, engagement, a haven—herself.
Nora Webster “may actually be a perfect work of fiction” (Los Angeles Times), by a “beautiful and daring” writer (The New York Times Book Review) at the zenith of his career, able to “sneak up on readers and capture their imaginations” (USA TODAY). “Miraculous...Tóibín portrays Nora with tremendous sympathy and understanding” (Ron Charles, The Washington Post).
This reading group guide forNora Websterincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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.
Set in Wexford, Ireland, Colm Tóibín’s superb eighth novel introduces the formidable, memorable, and moving Nora Webster. Widowed at forty, with four children and not enough money, Nora has lost the love of her life, Maurice, the man who rescued her from the stifling world to which she was born. And now she fears she may be drawn back into it. Wounded, iron-willed, clinging to privacy in a tiny community where everyone knows everyone else’s business, Nora is drowning in her sorrow and blind to the suffering of her young sons. Even so, Nora finds moments of stunning empathy and kindness, and when she begins to sing again, after decades, she finds solace, engagement, and a haven.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The novel opens with Nora discussing her intrusive visitors with her neighbor Tom O’Connor (p. 1). How does this set the tone for Nora Webster? What is your first impression of Nora?
2. What motivates Nora to sell the house in Cush? Is she just taking advantage of Jack Lacey’s offer (p. 6), or is it more emotional? Should she have consulted the children?
3. When Nora visits Josie to discuss Donal and Conor, Josie asks Nora, “Did you think they would come home unchanged?” (p. 54) What did Nora expect? Was it realistic? Is Josie being fair when she points out that Nora never called or visited the boys?
4. For her memory card for Maurice, Nora chooses “Too young to die, they say. Too young? No, rather he is blessed in being so young thus to be made swiftly an immortal. He has escaped the tremulous hands of age” (p. 57). Why do Jim and Margaret dislike it? Why does Nora insist on it?
5. When Nora gets her “fashionable cut” from Bernie, her enthusiasm turns to dismay, and she thinks that “anyone who saw her on the way home would think that she had lost her mind” (p. 63). Why does Nora react this way? Sometimes she seems to worry about what others think. Sometimes she is defiant. Where else does she second-guess her choices?
6. When Nora meets with William and Peggy Gibney to discuss working for them, she thinks of how Peggy and Francie Kavanaugh’s lives have changed since Nora first worked at Gibney’s. Is Nora comparing herself to them? Do either of them have anything that Nora wants?
7. On a beach trip with her sons (p. 129), Nora wonders about having never thought about whether the boys are happy or not. “Being with Donal sometimes made her afraid, but being with Conor could make her even more afraid, afraid for his innocence, his sweet loyalty, his open need to be taken care of.” Why does Nora feel this way?
8. After Francie cuts up Nora’s folders and Nora storms out of Gibney’s (p. 146), unsure if she’ll return, why does she go to the sea at Keatings’ (p. 149)? What effect does Sister Thomas have on Nora?
9. When Nora decides to join the union meeting, she reflects, “Perhaps it was not wise. . . . But it pleased her to be grateful to no one” (p. 176). Where does this need to be unbeholden come from?
10. Why does Donal become so engrossed in photography? Nora thinks he wouldn’t have if Maurice had lived (p. 221). How are his camera and Margaret’s gift of a darkroom a reaction to his father’s death?
11. Laurie tells Nora, “You kept [your singing] to yourself. You saved it up” (p. 242). Is Laurie right? Why would Nora do that?
12. Why is Nora’s record player so dear to her (p. 280)? Consider the passages on pages 282 and 314–15. What does the woman of the Archduke Trio group come to mean to Nora?
13. What is it about Josie that allows Nora to turn to her after she struggles with her pain and insomnia (p. 358)? Is it the same thing that caused her to send the boys to Josie when Maurice was dying? What are the differences and similarities between these two episodes?
14. Throughout the story, family members make plans and keep secrets from Nora—about Una’s engagement (p. 155), Donal’s darkroom (p. 169), Josie’s offer of a trip to Spain (p. 261), Fiona’s worry that Nora is too interested in Paul Whitney (pp. 289–94), and Donal’s decision to go to boarding school (p. 298). Why do they do this?
15. When the British Embassy in Dublin is burned, are they right to panic over Aine? Is Nora correct that they all have a “lingering unease” that can be triggered by any crisis (p. 326)?
16. Does Maurice really appear to Nora or is it a dream (pp. 356–57)? What does it mean?
17. Why does Nora finally burn Maurice’s letters and let her sisters take his clothes away (p. 372)?
18. Nora thinks that no one notices her, but we see Mick Sinnott invite her to the union meeting (p. 174), Phyllis take her to the quiz (p. 192), Laurie give her voice lessons (p.236), and Dan Bolger help her fix up her house (p. 333). Phyllis tells her, “After all you’ve been through, everyone thinks you are . . . Well, dignified” (p. 254). Is Phyllis right? Why doesn’t Nora see this?
19. Nora Webster is bold and independent, fierce and sympathetic at the same time. Does she remind you of other literary heroines? Which ones, and how so?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Remember May Lacey from the beginning of the novel? Her daughter, Eilis Lacey, is the heroine of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. Consider picking up Brooklyn to further explore County Wexford and the lives of its inhabitants, both at home in Ireland and abroad in America.
2. Nora watches Gaslight (p. 100) and Lost Horizon (p. 110) with her sons, each film evoking old memories and affecting her in new, unexpected ways as well. Watch one or both of the films and discuss their connections with Nora Webster.
3. The Archduke Trio and Brahms’s German Requiem are integral parts of Nora Webster. Listen to each, read the lyrics, and discuss the effect that each piece has. Why did Colm Tóibín choose these pieces for Nora Webster? What would you have chosen?
4. Nora Webster is set during The Troubles, which plagued Northern Ireland with religious, ethnic, and political strife beginning in the late 1960s. Read Lost Lives by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton, and David McVea, or Cal by Bernard MacLaverty for a fictional treatment, and discuss how this political background shapes events in Nora Webster.
Colm Tóibín is the author of nine novels, including The Blackwater Lightship; The Master, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Brooklyn, winner of the Costa Book Award; The Testament of Mary; and Nora Webster, as well as two story collections. He is the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University. Three times shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.
"Fascinating... Revelatory... More thoughtful than Emma Bovary and less self-destructive, in the end far and away a better parent than the doomed Anna Karenina for all the latter’s dramatic posturing, Nora Webster is easily as memorable as either—and far more believable. To say more would spoil a masterful— and unforgettable—novel."
– Betsy Burton, NPR
“The Ireland of four decades ago is beautifully evoked… Completely absorbing [and] remarkably heart-affecting.”
– Booklist (starred review)
"A compelling portrait... [of] a brave woman learning how to find a meaningful life as she goes on alone."
– Publishers Weekly
“A high-wire act of an eighth novel… Toibin’s radical restraint elevates what might have been a familiar tale of grief and survival into a realm of heightened inquiry. The result is a luminous, elliptical novel in which everyday life manages, in moments, to approach the mystical… There is much about Nora Webster that we never know. And her very mystery is what makes her regeneration, when it comes, feel universal.”
– Jennifer Egan, The New York Times Book Review
“[Nora Webster] may actually be a perfect work of fiction… There is no pyrotechny in the writing — just compassion and shrewd insight. Which is where Toibin's brilliance lies… People call Toibin a beautiful writer because they don't know how otherwise to classify such a delicate talent, such empathic simplicity. Some mysteries can't be deciphered by criticism. Colm Toibin is not a beautiful writer, he's merely a great one.”
– Darin Strauss, The Los Angeles Times
“The Ireland of four decades ago is beautifully evoked… Completely absorbing [and] remarkably heart-affecting.”
“Toibin’s restraint, sly humor and gentle prose cadence echo those of another Irish master, William Trevor. So does his affection for his characters… How Nora chooses to make her voice heard and how her children find ways to express their own pain provide Nora Webster’s plot and pleasure…a so-called average life can make for a thrilling read…Toibin presents one woman’s life keenly observed and honored with compassion. With Enniscorthy, he also creates a town, constrained and forever behind the times though it is, that feels like the whole world.”
– The Miami Herald
“[A] quietly moving study of a complex character and her ambiguous feelings toward the web of family and neighbors surrounding her in the small town of Enniscorthy…. All his books share precise, restrained prose, which can, in its simplicity, reach elegance.”
– Maya Muir, The Portland Oregonian
“Miraculous… a strikingly restrained novel about a woman awakening from grief and discovering her own space, her own will…extraordinary... [Toibin] portrays Nora with tremendous sympathy and understanding.”
– Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“Toibin artfully shows us a Nora unmoored…This quiet, wrenching novel conceals considerable human turbulence beneath its placid surface. So Toibin has learned well from Henry James…In many ways, Nora Webster would bring an admiring smile to the Master’s lips.”
– Daniel Dyer, Cleveland Plain Dealer
"A deeply moving portrait of the flowering of a self-liberated woman, Nora Webster tells the story of all the invisible battles the heart faces every day."
– Buzzy Jackson, Boston Globe
“Momentous, made with consummate art… It does everything we ought to ask of a great novel: that it respond to the fullness of our lives, be as large as life itself.”
– Tessa Hadley, The Guardian
“Each paragraph of these pages rewards rereading, so deftly are they composed, and so full of pathos and insight.”
– Claud Peck, The Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Richly detailed… Tóibín’s slow pacing results in bright moments of beauty.”
– The New Yorker
“Heart-rendingly transcendent… Mr. Toibin’s prose has an elegant, visceral simplicity.”