Lauded by critics and authors for her heartbreakingly real heroines, Laura Wiess brings readers another devastating tale of betrayal and redemption rich with the raw emotion that made Such a Pretty Girl a classic.
How can you make someone love you when they won’t?
And what if that person happens to be your mother?
Sayre Bellavia grew up knowing she was a mistake: unplanned and unwanted. At five months shy of eighteen, she’s become an expert in loneliness, heartache, and neglect. Her whole life she’s been cursed, used, and left behind. Swallowed a thousand tears and ignored a thousand deliberate cruelties. Sayre’s stuck by her mother through hell, tried to help her, be near her, be important to her even as her mother slipped away into a violent haze of addiction, destroying the only chance Sayre ever had for a real family.
Now her mother is lying in a hospital bed, near death, ravaged by her own destructive behavior. And as Sayre fights her way to her mother’s bedside, she is terrified but determined to get the answer to a question no one should ever have to ask: Did my mother ever really love me? And what will Sayre do if the answer is yes?
This reading group guide forOrdinary Beauty includes 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.
Seven years ago, Sayre Bellavia had everything she could ever want. But when her mother’s relapse meets with unexpected tragedy, Sayre’s life is consumed by her mother’s addiction and neglect. When fate lands Sayre in the truck of a wounded stranger with an out-of-service phone, she finds herself reliving some of the best and worst memories of her upbringing, including the year that changed everything. And time is running out—not just for Sayre’s mother, but for Sayre’s chance to finally speak her piece.
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. One of the overarching themes in Ordinary Beauty is identity. How would Sayre describe herself? What does she think of her last name, Bellavia? How do other characters in the book struggle with identity?
2. Why is Sayre so intent on feeding the kitten in the beginning of the story, especially when she barely has enough food for herself? What kind of symbolism do animals represent throughout Ordinary Beauty?
3. When Evan swerves into a ditch to avoid hitting Sayre, she stays with him until help arrives—even when Candy tries to take her to the hospital to see her mother. Why does Sayre consider her promise to stay with Evan so unbreakable? How do the themes of trust and loyalty develop throughout the story?
4. Discuss the relationship between Dianne and Candy. Does their friendship resemble any relationship anything in your own life? In what ways is it healthy and unhealthy?
5. How would you characterize Sayre’s self-deprecation? How does her mother influence it? Which other characters have a powerful effect on Sayre’s self-esteem?
6. Red tells Sayre “There is no grief like the grief that does not speak.” (p. 107) Why is Sayre so hesitant to talk about her pain? Can you pinpoint any events with her mother that may have influenced this reluctance?
7. After her brief time on Sunrise Road, Sayre clings to the blissful memories of life with Beale, Aunt Loretta, and Ellie. Do you have a happy memory of your own that you feel you can never reclaim? How does living in the past affect Sayre’s emotional health? Is it helpful or hurtful?
8. In what moment does it become clear to Sayre that her mother is really dying? Why is this realization significant?
9. Sayre refers to Queen Anne’s lace as “clean and pure and safe.” (p. 156) How does this description fit into the larger themes of Ordinary Beauty?
10. When Sayre brings home an A+ on a homework assignment, Beale calls her a “genius,” but Sayre’s mother is not impressed. Why does Sayre’s success bother Dianne so much? Can you think of any other reasons why Dianne would resent her own daughter?
11. Can you name any redeeming qualities about Sayre’s mother, Dianne? Why is it so difficult to see beyond anything but the addict—even during the time she was clean, sober, and happy? Can you think of other identities that cloud our judgment of someone’s true character?
12. How did you react to the narrative structure in Ordinary Beauty? How do you think it relates to the story itself?
13. Why did Sayre decide on her last words to be Love you,’bye to her mother?
14. After reading Ordinary Beauty, has your understanding of addiction and its influence on those involved changed in any way? Why or why not? Have you ever known anyone who has battled this disease or do you yourself have any personal experience with addiction? If so, where there any parts of Sayre’s story that especially resonated?
15. Discuss the title, Ordinary Beauty. What were your assumptions about the book when you began reading? How would you characterize the title now?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Volunteer for a day at your local animal shelter. Like Sayre, who loved animals of all kinds, spend time with and care for strays and other unwanted cats and dogs. You might even find your own Stormy.
2. Bring your book club on a wilderness adventure and find a spot with Queen Anne’s lace. Discuss Ordinary Beauty in the company of its most prominent symbol.
3. Read one of Laura Wiess’s other books, Such a Pretty Girl, Leftovers, or How It Ends. Discuss any parallels it has with Ordinary Beauty. Which one did you like better?
4. Visit Laura Wiess’s website, www.laurawiess.com. Learn about her past works, favorite activities, and upcoming appearances.
Laura Wiess is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Such a Pretty Girl, chosen as one of the ALA’s 2008 Best Books for Young Adults and 2008 YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers, and Leftovers. Originally from Milltown, New Jersey, she traded bumper-to-bumper traffic, excellent pizza, and summer days down the shore for scenic roads, bears, no pizza delivery, and the irresistible allure of an old stone house surrounded by forests in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains Region. Email Laura Wiess at email@example.com or visit http://www.laurawiess.com for more information.