This reading group guide for The Art of Devotion includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Samantha Bruce-Benjamin. 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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Filled with secrets, love, betrayal, obsession, and deceit, The Art of Devotion
is a beautifully rendered window into one family’s dark and complex history and the heartbreaking reality of love’s true power. Told from the shifting points of view of four women, the story explores the psychological effects and emotional damage within a family led by a matriarch who was tragically widowed too soon; the fragile, almost inappropriately close, relationship between her son and daughter; and the reckless deceit of an outsider.
The secluded beaches of a sun-drenched Mediterranean island are the perfect playground for young Sebastian and Adora. Emotionally adrift from their mother, Adora shelters her sensitive older brother from the cruelties of the world. Sophie does not question her children’s intense need for each other until it’s too late. Her beloved son’s affections belong to Adora, and when he drowns in the sea, she has no one else to blame.
Still heartbroken years later, Adora fills her emptiness with Genevieve, the precocious young daughter of her husband’s business associate and his jealous wife, Miranda. Thrilled to be invited into the beautiful and enigmatic Adora’s world, the child idolizes her during their summers together. Yet, as the years progress, Genevieve begins to suspect their charmed existence is nothing more than a carefully crafted illusion. Soon she, too, is ensnared in a web of lies. Discussion Questions
1. The opening lines of the novel suggest that “For each of us, there is a moment: what we see at the last, before God closes our eyes forever; an entire existence distilled to one perfect memory.” Do you agree with this sentiment? Discuss what each character’s “moment” might be. Discuss what yours might be.
2. There are four different narrators, and the novel switches viewpoints frequently. Who do you consider to be the most reliable narrator of the four women? Or are they all, to varying degrees, decidedly unreliable? How did your perception of their trustworthiness shift as the novel progressed?
3. With which character do you most identify? Why?
4. Adora “steals” Genevieve from Miranda and appears to mold the young girl in her image. Given what you know ultimately transpires and the rationale behind her seemingly manipulative and cruel decision, can Adora be forgiven? In the context of this act, is her choice barbaric or benevolent?
5. What does the character of Jack symbolize for Adora and what impels her immediate desire never to let him go? The subsequent relationship between Adora and Jack is ambiguous and its nature unclear. How do you perceive their bond? What role do you think each plays for the other? Contrast Adora’s relationships with Oliver and Sebastian to what she shares with Jack. What are the differences/similarities, if any, between them?
6. There are many recurring symbols in the novel: bougainvillea, the olive grove, the sea, and the stray dogs. What does the bougainvillea signify to each character? What does the olive grove symbolize? Are the dogs symbolic within that context? Finally, what does Linford represent to Adora?
7. The role of the mother is one of the central themes of the novel, specifically the attributes that might define a “good” one. Discuss the notion of maternal guidance/sacrifice in relation to Sophie and Miranda. Are the decisions they make for their children justified or self-serving? Could it be argued that Adora, although barren, is actually the most selfless “mother” of them all?
8. Throughout the novel, Adora inspires a cross-section of emotions ranging from adoration to hatred, yet none of the characters appear able—or willing—to ignore her. Why is this? Beyond her beauty and wealth, what is it about Adora that proves so compelling to others, even those who despise her? Why can’t anyone seem to escape her influence?
9. The ending of the novel challenges nearly everything the reader has been led to believe throughout the book. Were you surprised by what was revealed? In rereading earlier passages, do you see any foreshadowing of what would ultimately transpire?
10. The nature of idolatry is at the heart of the novel, specifically Genevieve’s desire to emulate Adora in everything. Given what happens, does Adora condemn Genevieve to an equally tragic life by indulging her in this whim? Or is Genevieve to blame and Adora merely an innocent victim of a crush that turned into a dangerous obsession?
11. Discuss the title, The Art of Devotion,
as it applies to each character in the book. Under the guise of “devotion,” all make decisions that have profound, sometimes tragic, repercussions for themselves and others. Examine the varying types of devotion each character displays. Enhance Your Book Club
1. Bougainvillea is a recurrent symbol of the novel. Stop by a flower shop and purchase some of their fuchsia blooms for book club members to wear during your discussion!
2. The story is set on a French island in the Mediterranean. Consult a map or look online to help you better visualize the story’s setting.
3. This novel has many similar themes to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
. Read that classic novel and compare the two. A Conversation with Author Samantha Bruce-Benjamin1. What inspired you to write your first novel? You’ve worked for the BBC and as an editor; have you always been a writer at heart?
I would say that I was always passionate about literature. For me, it’s all about the book. Obviously, my background in the editorial field fueled that interest, yet the desire to write emerged only after several years working in that environment, perhaps because the nature of the job requires writing “on demand” to a certain degree. Working so closely on promotional materials, as all editors do, gave me the confidence to try to write something for myself. So I took a year to attempt to come up with something: I wrote two pages a day for five months, and at the end of that period I had a first draft of The Art of Devotion. 2. Where did you come up with the idea for this story in particular? The character development is fantastic—are any of the characters based on real people?
I can’t speak for all authors, but it is a general truism that those who desire to write are often counseled to write only “what they know.” Of course, there is a little of what I know in this novel. I, like many writers, delve into a world of memory to find inspiration, and I am lucky in that the memories I have amassed are peopled by such exquisite souls. Yet, for me, the pleasure of reading has always derived from being able to project my own imagination into the life of a story—envisaging people I know as the characters, creating their world as I see it based on what the author suggests. As a consequence, I wouldn’t dream of imposing the facts of the inspiration of this book onto any reader. The book belongs to whomever reads it, to interpret as they wish, so that it becomes “their” story, personal and unique to them and founded on their insights and experiences. 3. The novel has some very surprising twists. Did you have the ending planned when you began writing, or did the character’s relationships develop as you wrote?
In essence, the novel crystallized in my imagination when I accepted that Adora would die at the end of the summer in 1938—and, most importantly, that she wanted to. As soon as the choice became “hers,” everything else—the nature of the betrayal, the history with Sebastian, her relationship with Jack—formulated in my mind and a clear trajectory from start to finish emerged. 4. You’ve set your novel in paradise. Have you visited the Mediterranean islands for inspiration?
Until I was twenty-one, I spent all of my summers on an island in the Mediterranean Sea. 5. Did you have a “favorite” character in this novel? Was there one you related to more than others?
I pity Genevieve—in fact, she haunts me. I wrestle with Sophie, still unsure whether to forgive her. I grudgingly acknowledge Miranda’s strength. Yet, ultimately, Adora is always with me. Curiously enough, I have no idea where she came from. Who she is—her motivation and passion—never fails to take me by surprise, as her personality is revealed throughout the novel. Truthfully, she took on a life of her own, and it is a life that still fascinates me to the point that, even as I reread her, I am still trying to make sense of who she is and why she proves so compelling. Even so, she never fails to break my heart. 6. Which point of view was easiest to write? Which was the hardest?
Miranda proved the easiest voice to write. Yet, contradictorily, she also proved the hardest in that I found it literally devastating to write her “final” speech. Originally, I had thought to grace Miranda with a rather poignant, almost redemptive, closing scene, but it occurred to me as I sat down to the task that the very last thing Miranda would be, in reality, was sorry. Something about this awareness just felled me—it was like being punched in the stomach. As much as I didn’t want to—and maybe this is because, in some ways, Miranda is my “offspring”—I accepted that she had to be judged. I could not intervene as an author to try to “save” her or offer up a reprieve. It was up to readers to decide how they perceived her conduct. I didn’t change a word from the first draft to the last: I knew exactly what Miranda would say, how she would justify her actions, the delight she would take in her circumstances, and, although this scene took only five minutes to write, hours later I was still deeply affected by my decision. Yet I also recognized that everything about the story had led up to that moment; it was the twist the novel required, the bitter rub from which there was no escape: a dark interpretation of devotion—the art of malice, if you will. 7. What writers have you been inspired by? What were you reading while writing this novel? What are you reading now?
For inspiration, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Kazuo Ishiguro, Louis de Bernières, Françoise Sagan, Émile Zola, François Mauriac, John Cheever, Graham Greene, Ian McEwan, Ian Rankin, Evelyn Waugh—the list is endless. I couldn’t read at all while I was writing the novel. I started several books, yet I found that I couldn’t concentrate on them and, even more counter–productively, I began to compare my writing—unfavorably—to those authors and found that I stalled creatively. As a consequence, I stop reading altogether whenever I am writing, as I find it extremely difficult to have another voice in my head, beyond the “voices” I need to find for the characters.