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Readers Guide Questions and Topics for Discussion
1) With a title like Second Glance,
what can we immediately assume about the story, even before beginning reading? In what ways does this title help us to understand that this book is not only about revisiting the past, but also about exploring what we thought we knew, what we may have been mistaken about, and how things look different in hindsight?
2) In many ways Second Glance
is a rumination on the delicate balance between life and death, suffering and happiness, and desperation and fulfillment. And while all of the characters must find a way to muddle through the madness, they do it in very different ways. Ross is desperate to die, while Ethan struggles with the painful knowledge that he will probably die young. But despite this fact, Ethan seems to be very well adjusted -- he has a sense of wisdom that certainly transcends his age. What might Ross stand to learn from his nephew about the value of life? Do you think Ross does learn anything about the nature of life and death?
3) What kinds of preconceptions and assumptions are challenged throughout this story? Meredith, for example, comes to question everything, thinking to herself, "Maybe the sky was not really blue, maybe science did not hold all the answers, maybe she was not happy with her life." Why is it that most characters in this novel must have their world completely turned upside down before they can begin to see things differently? Why do people become so anchored in their own version of "reality" that they cannot accept or even see things that lie outside of it?
4) In what ways is Meredith's work significant in terms of this novel's larger themes? Like Harry Beaumont, Meredith tries to make stronger, healthier, more "normal" children. But in what ways is she different from Harry? What motivates her to do her work? Are her motivations different, in your opinion, from Harry's?
5) Do you have any moral or ethical problems with the possibility of genetically engineering our children? Do you believe that some degree of genetic screening -- for disease and/or future health risks -- is acceptable, or is it simply a dangerous practice that will inevitably lead to a race of Stepford Wives?
6) With so many stories told from so many different vantage points, it is often difficult to glean the ultimate "truth" of any given situation in this novel. Eli himself asks, in a conversation with Shelby, "I think people believe what they need to, don't you?" Talk about the ways that "truth" is subverted, revised, and distorted by the different characters. Who would you say is the most guilty of this? What is it about the nature of truth that allows it to be so subjective in the context of this story?
7) Spencer Pike is a troubled man. He not only spends his entire life trying to justify sterilizing people who are different from him, but he attempts to murder a child that he believes is not his own. Although we might be tempted to see Spencer as evil incarnate, is there anything that might help us to understand him, or, at least to some extent, to empathize with him? Did you feel pity for him later in the novel, as he lies dying? Why does Meredith feel compelled to sit with this man and provide some comfort for him before he dies, even though he tried to kill her grandmother?
8) Similarly, what were your feelings about Harry, Lia's father? After hearing her father criticize the sterilization law because it does not get rid of the "degenerates" who are now living, Lia immediately gives him the benefit of the doubt: "He does not say this with malice; for his statement to be hateful he would actually have to know some of the people he wants to eliminate. He and Spencer, they are only trying to change the world, to make is a better place for their children." Do you agree with this logic? How harshly should we judge Harry and Spencer for their ignorance, given that they are trying to help their children?
9) Can you really only be hateful to someone you know, as Lia contends? Do you think Lia herself maintains this opinion by the time she hangs herself, or do you think she comes to realize something about Spencer and her father that changes her mind?
10) Near the end of the novel, Meredith and Shelby have a debate on the nature of love and fate. While Shelby believes strongly that fate brings people together and keeps them together, Meredith says, "Relationships succeed and fail because of the people in them...not some karmic plan." And yet, throughout this story there is often the sense that certain things, relationships especially, are fated and beyond individual characters' control. Who did you side with in this argument? Do you think people are responsible for their romantic destinies, or do you think it is all preordained?
11) Along the same lines, do you think people have one "soul mate" who they must find in their lifetime? Are people who have not found that person doomed to misery? How should we view Ross, a man who initially pined for his dead wife and then changes his loyalties mid-book to a woman he met only a few times (a woman who, incidentally, turns out to be a ghost), only to finally turn his attention to Meredith? Who is Ross's soul mate, and why does he have such a tough time identifying her?
12) In her author's note, Jodi Picoult explains that although this story is fiction, the Vermont Eugenics project did actually exist. Were you surprised to find this out? As you were reading the book, did you ever suspect that this was, indeed, a chapter in Vermont's history? How does it change your view of this story to know that thirty-three states actually enacted sterilization laws?
13) At one point, during a visit with her father, Lia thinks to herself, "Whether he wants to admit it or not, people do belong to each other. Once you make a sacrifice for someone, you own part of their soul." This novel is filled with sacrifice -- the sacrifice that a parent makes for a child, the sacrifice that a husband makes for a wife, even the sacrifice a stranger can make for a stranger. In what ways does this quote speak to the way sacrifice is presented in this novel? Is sacrifice really a selfless, loving act, or, do people do it for selfish reasons?