Introduction The author of the “ethereal and brutally realistic” (The New York Times) Tuesday Nights in 1980 returns with a highly anticipated new novel exploring what it means to be a woman in her many forms—daughter, friend, partner, lover, and mother.
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Emily writes for women’s catalogs for a living, but she’d rather be writing books. She has a handsome photographer boyfriend, but she actively wonders how and when they will eventually hurt each other. Her best work friend Megan is her lifeline, until Megan is abruptly laid off. When her world is further upended by an unplanned pregnancy, Emily is forced to make tough decisions that will change her life forever.
What will she sacrifice from her old life to make room for a new one? What fires will she be forced to extinguish, and which will keep burning? Old Flame
is a story about the essential—and often existential—choices that define a woman’s life at every level, from which dress to wear to when to have a child to how to be in the world. Topics & Questions for Discussion
Emily embarks on a journey to Italy, where she is transformed both physically and emotionally. She discovers she is pregnant, is reunited with the family that she used to nanny for, and gets into a fight with her best friend, Megan. How does Emily’s physical transformation (pregnancy) interact with her memories of Renata and her daughters as well as her relationship with Megan while she is in Italy?
The foreshadowing at the end of part two (“If I had known what Italy would do to us, I would have stopped her in the street right then. Looked her in the eyes and said, ‘Let’s not go. Let’s stay right here. You and me in the sunshine on Bedford Avenue. Best friends, frozen in the chaos of time.’” [page 87]) lets the reader know that the destruction of Emily and Megan’s friendship is impending. How did this hint shape your reading of the Italy trip? Did you have any guesses as to what would happen between the two women?
The relationships between characters, and particularly the female characters, are the driving force of the novel. Discuss how Emily establishes her identity in relation to the people in her life—Megan; Wes; Renata; her daughter, Greta; and her adoptive mother, Ann.
Throughout the novel, there are many instances of Emily feeling powerless, whether it’s being a cog in the corporate machine, watching her best friend get fired, being left alone with her infant while her boyfriend travels to Greece, etc. How does Emily reclaim some of that power by the end of the novel? How does becoming a mother hold her back? How does it empower her?
In a flashback scene from Emily’s time taking Renata’s class at the university, Renata asks, “‘At what point does compulsion become art? . . . At what point does the personal become worthy of a frame?’” (page 95). Discuss whether or not you see a line between the personal and the artistic. What is something in your life you consider to be ordinary that could potentially be interpreted as art? Which scenes from the novel come to mind when considering this topic?
When first struck with the idea to write a fictional story about Megan and her circumstances, Emily ponders the questions “DO WE LIKE HER? DOES IT MATTER IF WE LIKE HER?
” (page 109). Consider these questions as they apply to Emily as a narrator. Do we like Emily? Does it matter if we like Emily?
At the end of the novel, it is revealed that Megan pressured Wes into telling Emily that he had feelings for another woman. What do you make of this? Do you think you would do the same to protect an ex-friend in this situation? What loyalty do you think we owe the people who are no longer a part of our lives?
The novel is broken into several parts, meant to represent different parts of the human experience: Birth, Business, Pleasure, Pain, Glory, and Death. Do you agree that life is broken into these themes? Identify parts of the novel associated with each theme, and consider the ways you might label parts of your own life.
Were there any questions you had by the end of the novel that you felt went unanswered? Would you have liked to see Emily and Megan’s reunion, or watch men like Todd and Wes receive some karma, or witness baby Greta grow up? Why do you think the author left these elements up to the reader’s imagination? Enhance your book club
Discuss a time that you got in a fight with a friend or loved one. How did you resolve it?
Review the texts referenced in the acknowledgements (page 307) and choose a poem or novel from the list to read as further reading. Discuss your choice(s) with the group.
The events that transpire in Italy define much of Emily’s perspective about herself and those around her. If you could get on a plane tomorrow and travel anywhere you want, where would you go? What would you hope to learn there?
Emily adds Megan to her “tiny list of beloved humans” once she realizes that she feels genuine love for Megan as her best friend (page 80). Who is on your list of beloved humans, and how do you decide who ends up there?