A New York Times Editors’ Choice * One of The Washington Post’s 50 Notable Works of Fiction of 2023 * One of Chicago Public Library’s Favorite Books of the Year * A LitHub Best Book of 2023
From the author of Infinite Country—a New York Times bestseller and a Reese’s Book Club pick—comes a “rich and compelling” (The Washington Post) collection of ten exquisite, award-winning short stories set across the Americas and linked by themes of migration, sacrifice, and moral compromise.
Two Colombian expats meet as strangers on the rainy streets of New York City, both burdened with traumatic pasts. In Cuba, a woman discovers her deceased brother’s bones have been stolen, and the love of her life returns from Ecuador for a one-night visit. A cash-strapped couple hustles in Miami, to life-altering ends.
“If you’re looking for a collection that will touch your heart and make you look at your fellow humans more generously, this one’s a can’t-miss” (Good Housekeeping). Author Patricia Engel is “a wonder” (Lauren Groff) and these intimate and panoramic stories bring to life the liminality of regret, the vibrancy of community, and the epic deeds and quiet moments of love.
Reading Group Guide
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This reading group guide for The Faraway World includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Patricia Engel.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.
A Colombian woman signs up with an online agency to marry a man from the United States. A boy meets a girl with a broken leg, and thinks that he might love her and only her. A priest forgives, and changes two lives in the process. Patricia Engel’s first collection of short stories explores physical and emotional displacement, moving from a hotel room in Havana to a luxury apartment along Central Park alongside individuals from across the Americas grappling with griefs small and large. Love and regret are entwined, and each character is a world of history both enacted and unspoken as they continue on an eternal search for home—and all that word means.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Compare and contrast how Salma and her parents cope with Aida’s disappearance. What aspects of their personalities and histories inform how they react★ How do you think Salma’s relationship with her father and mother will evolve beyond the end of “Aida”★
2. In what ways does the narrator of “Fausto” assert her autonomy even when she is trapped between two domineering men★ In your opinion, was choosing to remain with her father the right decision★ What other stories in the collection position the female protagonist in relation to two male forces★
3. The alternating perspectives in “The Book of Saints” imply varying levels of self-awareness in the female and male narrator. How do they both address the estrangement they feel from the lives they wish they lived★ What other characters in The Faraway World experience this★
4. In “Campoamor,” Vladimir’s father tells the story of his ex-girlfriend’s father, a once-wealthy property owner who burned his fortune for fear or it being discovered by the revolution. What did you take from this story★ What lesson do you think Vlad’s father seeks★
5. Indiana’s body is obese, then surgically altered, and finally cleaved in half when she loses her legs. What ideas might Engel be exploring through her changing body in “Guapa,” especially in the context of the narrator’s feelings towards her homeland, the United States, and her new love with Edgar★
6. “La Ruta” begins with dogs mating. A family of cats live next to Mago and Flor’s apartment; dogs adopted by the San Lázaro church roam the grounds; the narrator chastises a man for abusing a dog, and he suggests Margarita take one of the kittens they happen upon after visiting the cathedral. What feelings does this animal imagery evoke in you, especially when considering the themes and tone of this story★
7. How does the concept and act of lying inform how the characters in “Ramiro” think about their identities and futures★ What about in “Aida,” “Campoamor,” and “Aguacero”★ What does Ramiro mean when he tells the narrator, “They might come looking but they won’t find Ramiro. I’m someone else now. You’re going to leave here one day, but I never will”★
8. What does Ana and Marco’s turbulent love story have in common with that of Joaquin and Graciela, and other couples in this collection★ Why do you think Engel titled this story “The Bones of Cristóbal Colón”★
9. “Libélula” is the only story in the collection written as if to another person—the narrator’s former employer. What is the rhetorical effect of this★ How do you think the dynamic between the two characters would change if the employer was not also from Colombia★
10. What about their pasts enables the narrator and Juan to operate within this peculiar realm of intimacy and distance★ Why do you think Engel chose to end The Faraway World with “Aguacero”★ In what ways does this closing story reflect the collection as a whole★
Enhance Your Book Club
1. As a group, list some feelings you all experienced while reading The Faraway World and brainstorm other pieces of media that evoke or depict similar emotions. Discuss how these selections differ from or are similar to the stories in collection. How does Engel write about toxic love affairs, motherhood, striving, ennui, risk, and beyond★
2. Print out a world map and mark down every location that is relevant to the stories in the collection. You could also narrow this down by country, story, or character. Are there any patterns that emerge★ Google places you want to learn more about, like the Parque Lleras, La Víbora, or the Tropicoco.
3. Select a story or two from The Faraway World and cast the movie or miniseries: Choose your top picks for the main roles—for example, the Hombre from “The Book of Saints,” Florencia from “La Ruta,” and the titular Ramiro—and make a case to the larger group about who would best embody each character.
A Conversation with Patricia Engel
Why did you decide to title this collection The Faraway World★
I had another working title for a few years but as the collection came closer to completion, I came across a photograph that had belonged to my grandfather that he took facing the gravestone of his mother and grandparents in Vienna on the eve of his departure to Colombia, where he settled when he met my grandmother and had nine children. On the back of the photograph, he’d written a message of gratitude to his deceased loved ones, and at the very end, added, translated from their original old Austrian German, “Words of commemoration from the distant journey in the faraway world . . .” These words remained with me as I thought of how each of us has a faraway world, internal or external, that we somehow spend our lives trying to reach.
How do you think the epigraphs resonates with the collection as a whole★
I like that epigraphs speak to the body of a book but also take on a different significance for each reader. In my mind, the epigraphs of this collection recall the fragile tenderness of relationships and the ways we expand or betray ourselves in the orbits of love, desire, and melancholy.
In “La Ruta” the narrator describes his drives with Margarita as “a private liberty in which I can play in our shared silence at an imagined intimacy, a life that will never be.” Many of the characters in your collection experience a dissonance between the life they live and the life they desire, which manifests as a profound loneliness. What is it about this emotion that interests you★
I think this feeling is quite common and for many, life is a perpetual reckoning with what is, what could be, and what could never be. I enjoy exploring the intersections of longing, fear, and courage to show what is possible in a single life.
What are the difficulties and benefits of writing a short story versus a novel★
I enjoy both forms immensely but short stories are a sudden immersion into another world whereas novels allow for more calibration. As for difficulties, I think each form presents its own and carry the same burdens of storytelling and capturing a reader from start to finish with a goal of sustained resonance.
Which of the characters in The Faraway World did you find easiest or most pleasurable to write★ If you could expand one character’s story, who would it be and why★
I love them all and enjoyed writing every single one. Paz from “Fausto” is one of my favorite narrators, as are Vlad from “Campoamor,” and the narrator of “Libélula.” At one point I entertained the idea of developing “Aida” into a novel but ultimately felt it needed to remain a short story.
All of the stories in this collection are in the first-person. What does that point of view allow you as a writer★
First person allows for a certain kind of intimacy, access to a narrator’s hidden vulnerabilities, where a reader can make connections about a narrator’s psychology that not even the character is aware of. As a writer, first person is great fun to write and allows the narrator to control their own story and lead it in unexpected directions.
What is the relationship between despair and hope in The Faraway World★
That’s a great question and one that each reader can decipher for themselves. I think it’s quite personal, but in my life, I understand despair as feeling bordered by isolation while hope is more active, aiming to open portals, extend ladders or bridges, seeking movement and transcendence. I think the two can coexist as well; as long as one reaches beyond despair, hope guides and carries.
Patricia Engel is the author of Infinite Country, a New York Times bestseller and Reese’s Book Club selection; The Veins of the Ocean, winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize; It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris, winner of the International Latino Book Award; and Vida, a finalist for the Pen/Hemingway and Young Lions Fiction Awards, New York Times Notable Book, and winner of Colombia’s national book award, the Premio Biblioteca de Narrativa Colombiana. She is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her stories appear in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. Born to Colombian parents, and herself a dual citizen, Patricia is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Miami.
“Sparkling . . . . What makes Engel’s story collection so rich and compelling is that the Colombian American author places her tales in the context of universal themes: the compromises we make for love, the lies we tell ourselves and others, betrayal, paranoia, grief, joy, acceptance . . . . Engel knows how to draw in readers fast—and keep them . . . . [she] entices you with irresistible opening lines over and over.” —Manuel Roig-Franzia, The Washington Post
“One of our most essential writers . . . . Engel’s gift for dialogue and her lyrical powers of description make these stories crackle, but it’s her bittersweet insight into the costs of leaving—and staying!—home that will lodge The Faraway World in your heart.” —Adrienne Westenfeld, Esquire
"Any fan of Engel’s work will tell you to prepare yourself for unique and intimate layered storytelling. You'll find that and so much more in this new short story collection exploring themes of community, regret and migration." —TODAY
“When you’re in a dark place, you just want someone next to you with a (proverbial) flashlight, holding your hand. Patricia Engel does that in this evocative collective featuring Colombians and Colombian expats teetering on the line between despair, and resilience.” —Erin Kodicek, Amazon Best Book of the Month
“Wistful and understated . . . . [its] characters have astonishingly complex relationships to places they’ve never seen or haven’t been to in many years, since they emigrated to another place . . . . The Faraway World is a collection about the Latin American diaspora, but it’s also one that proves how Engel, like one of her characters, is capable of noticing that between any two people a look reveals more than a fingerprint.’” —Leigh Newman, New York Times Book Review
“Most of the ten stories have a pair of characters at their center, the intersection of their lives sizzling like crossed wires. . . Engel’s gift for dialogue makes it a pleasure to read. . . full of ironic flair, imagination, and empathy.” —Marion Winik, WYPR’s “The Weekly Reader”
“Stellar . . . luminous [and] assured . . . . Engel places her own faith in the story behind each story; what shimmers off the page is as vital as the pieces themselves. She gracefully weaves the quiet despair of individual lives with the fury of social upheaval. With its dreamy, ephemeral title, The Faraway World hints at what lies beyond our grasp; and yet it grounds our fates in our own hands.” —Hamilton Cain, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"These 10 compelling stories follow characters that feel as real as I do, grappling with human struggles that feel both uniquely new and nearly universal. If you're looking for a collection that will touch your heart and make you look at your fellow humans more generously, this one's a can't-miss." —Good Housekeeping
“[This] collection lives up to Engel’s well-deserved reputation . . . . Each story is compelling in its own way. Engel’s writing has a propulsive effect, carrying readers forward, and her characters are fascinating.” —Southern Review of Books
"Patricia Engel is the kind of writer other writers love to envy. How could we not? There is a steady, consistent, and exquisite control in her prose. There is her rare ability to craft extraordinary situations out of this ordinary world . . . . There is also such unexpected beauty in her sentences . . . . I must be honest here: I’m still working on getting over my envious ways. Engel’s latest, The Faraway World, may have set me back some. But I suppose we can agree there’s enchantment in surrendering to an expert working at this level. Especially, if it is in service of looting some of her magic." —Cleyvis Natera, author of Neruda on the Park
“With flowing, beautiful language, Engel shows us a gritty reality, but mixes in doses of dark humor and empathy.” —Book Riot
“A powerful new story collection that captures the diasporic experience of the modern Americas in all its complexity, nuance, and humanity . . . . Her stories also move between registers—at times sweeping and tinged with history, other times intensely personal. Always, her characters are real people, dealing with real struggles, rendered beautifully, with insight and understanding.” —Dwyer Murphy, Lit Hub
“A haunting read . . . . No matter how far these stories travel, Engel infuses intimacy and care in every single life she writes.” —Chicago Review of Books
“A pleasure to read . . . . Engel's multinational update of dirty realism is full of ironic flair, imagination, and empathy.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)