The Chrysanthemum Palace introduces Bertie Krohn, the only child of Perry Krohn, creator of TV's longest running space opera, Starwatch: The Navigators (which counts Jennifer Aniston and Donald Rumsfeld among its obsessed fans). Bertie recounts the story of the last months in the lives of his two companions: Thad Michelet, author, actor, and son of a literary titan; and Clea Freemantle, emotionally fragile daughter of a legendary movie star, long dead. Scions of entertainment greatness, they call themselves the Three Musketeers; between them, as Bertie says, "there was more than enough material to bring psychoanalysis back into vogue." As the incestuous clique attempts to scale the peaks claimed by their sacred yet monstrous parents over a two-week filming of a Starwatch episode in which they costar, Bertie scrupulously chronicles their highs and lows -- as well as their futile struggles against the ravenous, narcissistic, Convulsive and poignant, The Chrysanthemum Palace is a tragic tale of friendship and fate writ large -- a tour de force by a major writer whose narrative delivers devastating emotional impact.
Reading Group Guide
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Describe Bertie's character. How has his past as the child of a renowned television show creator and producer affected him? What do you think of the relationship he has with his parents, in particular his father? How has this essential relationship shaped his relationships throughout the book? What is your overall opinion of Bertie?
"It's funny what draws us to people; funny we don't often see the design of it." What draws Bertie to Thad? What about Thad intrigues and confounds Bertie? Do the two men share anything in common? Do you think Bertie comes to understand Thad throughout the story and does he ultimately forgive Thad for his final offense against Clea? What was your initial reaction to Thad and did it change by the end of the novel?
Discuss Thad's story about the time machine model. What does this story in particular reveal about Thad? Aside from the memory of playing time machine with his deceased brother, what do the time machine and Thad's subsequent belief that he imagined the whole story symbolize?
Bertie says of his relationship with Clea: "We were like bystanders you see on television after a suicide bomb attacks, numbly clutching each other in front of splintered buses and orphaned cell phones. I get it. This is how it's always been and always would be between us." Discuss how this notion is illustrated throughout the book. Why do you think the bond between them was as strong as it was for as long as it was, despite the years of estrangement?
Throughout the novel, we are given glimpses into the story line of Thad and Clea's episode of "Starwatch: The Navigators." What are the parallels between what is happening on the show and what is actually happening in real life? What effect do you think these similarities ultimately have on Thad?
Why do you think Morgana and Jack Michelet emotionally and mentally abuse Thad? How much of their inappropriate behavior do you attribute to the loss of their young son? Bertie says of Morgana: "Sudden death expunged her rancor; at last, Thad was brought into protective arms." Do you think Morgana achieves any kind of salvation after Thad's death?
Discuss the relationship between Miriam and Bertie. What initially brings them together? Do you think his feelings for her are genuine and vice versa?
The final time Bertie sees Thad he says: "I watched Thad crane his neck to look at the stars, feeling a rush of sympathy and affection for the man. I was suddenly certain of his innocence." What does he mean by this? Do you agree with this perception? How does this last melancholy interaction between Bertie and Thad contradict what Bertie discovers about his death?
The word denouement is mentioned twice in the story. What was your reaction to the denouement of Bertie, Thad, and Clea's story?
What do chrysanthemums symbolize in the novel? What does the title mean?
Bruce Wagner is the author of The Chrysanthemum Palace (a PEN Faulkner fiction award finalist); Still Holding; I'll Let You Go (a PEN USA fiction award finalist); I'm Losing You; and Force Majeure. He lives in Los Angeles.
"[Wagner's] ability to eviscerate the absurdities of Hollywood, while occasionally hinting at its basic humanity, remains undiminished." -- The New Yorker
"The Chrysanthemum Palace is full of daring language that veers between being wickedly funny and just plain wicked. Nobody writes more knowingly about Hollywood than Wagner....Like Thad, its most magnetic character, Chrysanthemum Palace is 'raw and cultured, cultivated and kitschy' and great fun." -- Lee Aitken, People
"The Chrysanthemum Palace is both tender and tenderhearted. Also, and unexpectedly, this is a very funny book.... If The Great Gatsby were set in contemporary Hollywood, it might look a lot like The Chrysanthemum Palace. These are Americans, ensnared by their fate but gallant and brave to the end." -- Carolyn See, The Washington Post
"Wagner marries his dagger-sharp, lapidary wit to an emotionally arresting narrative whose phaser is set on scorch.... I couldn't read fast enough." -- Henry Alford, The New York Times Book Review