This reading group guide for Red Island House 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. Introduction
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From National Book Award–nominated author Andrea Lee comes a gorgeously evocative epic about love, clashing cultures, and identity, set in the tropical African island nation of Madagascar.
“People do mysterious things when they think they’ve found paradise,” reflects Shay, the heroine of Red Island House.
When Shay, a Black American professor who’s always had an adventurous streak, marries Senna, an Italian businessman, she doesn’t imagine their union will carry her far beyond their home in Milan to an idyllic stretch of beach in Madagascar, where Senna builds a flamboyant vacation villa. Before she knows it, Shay has become the somewhat reluctant mistress of a sprawling household, caught between her privileged American upbringing and her connection to the continent of her ancestors.
At first, she’s content to be an observer of the passionate affairs and fierce rivalries around her, but over twenty tumultuous years of marriage, as she and Senna raise children and establish their own rituals at the house, Shay finds herself drawn ever deeper into a place where a blend of magic, sexual intrigue, and transgression forms a modern-day parable of colonial conquest. Soon the collision of cultures comes to Shay’s door, forcing her to make a life-altering decision.
A captivating, powerful, and profoundly moving novel about marriage and loyalty, identity and freedom, Red Island House
showcases an extraordinary literary voice and an extravagantly lush, enchanted world.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Consider the two epigraphs that form a gateway into Red Island House
: the first alleging that “the natives [of Madagascar] are, or seem to be, very Human” and the second affirming that the country is “sacred” but “at the mercy of outside interests.” How do these two perspectives, from a colonizer and an indigenous Malagasy person, inform the narrative that follows?
2. One of the first stories we hear about Madagascar, from Shay’s husband, Senna, is the probably fictitious tale of the pirate colony of Libertalia. How does this theme shed light on Senna’s own actions? Can we trace it as an origin myth underlying the destiny of the Red House?
3. In “The Packet War,” after Senna falls asleep, Shay lies in the darkness and thinks, “I have a house in Africa …”
(page 21). What is this a reference to? How does Shay’s identity as a Black American woman complicate her status as the “mistress” of the Red House?
4. At times, Shay imagines that her two happy, well-cared-for children are the “shadow twins” (page 73) of Didier and Harena, the abandoned children of an Italian nobleman who briefly visited Madagascar. Why does she feel this? Can you further explore this connection?
5. Shay believes Caroline la Blonde, one of the “bar girls” on the island, regards her with a mixture of “pride, deference, curiosity, and barely hidden resentment” (page 76). But how does Shay regard Caroline, and the other young women like her? Does she feel sympathy, understanding, kinship, antipathy, amusement?
6. In the long battle between old men in “The Rivals,” who do you believe was victorious? Anyone?
7. Orso tells Shay that, “That island paradise of yours sounds more like Purgatory!” (page 151). What do you make of that statement? Do you agree or disagree? Can you trace the theme—and pitfalls—of pursuing life in paradise throughout other parts of the novel?
8. In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” sex tourism in on display, but the way the story deals with it creates more questions than answers. How does the story either reinforce or challenge your understanding of sex tourism?
9. Shay is very fond of her housekeeper Bertine and is often very open with her. Is there evidence that Bertine allows herself to be vulnerable with Shay in similar ways? Discuss the power dynamic in this relationship. Is it static or does it shift as the narrative progresses? Can they truly be defined as sisters?
10. Shay tells Baptiste the body painter that she is fascinated by exoticism—“artists and writers trying to process other cultures by rendering them ornamental and harmless” (page 240). How does Red Island House
engage with the notion of the exotic? What draws Shay and Senna, together and separately, to Madagascar: the ornamental surface or the deeper currents?
11. The novel ends with the birth of a child—a child whose conception, Shay believes, mirrors truths from her family history, and the larger history of North America. What does this final narrative event reveal about the nature of her relationship with Senna? With Madagascar? With the Malagasy people?Enhance Your Book Club
1. Explore the work of Malagasy writers like Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa (Naivo), author of Beyond the Rice Fields.
2. Explore Andrea Lee’s earlier books: the memoir Russian Journal
, the novel Sarah Phillips
, the short story collection Interesting Women
, and the novel Lost Hearts in Italy.