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“Complex and haunting…vivid and unforgettable” (People), this story of one injured but indefatigable young woman is a stunning portrait of a family, a generation, and a country all coming of age.

From a quiet family farm in Montana in the 60s to the grit and haze of San Francisco in the 70s to a gypsy-populated, post-war Saigon, The Given World spins around its unconventional and unforgettable heroine, Riley. When her big brother is declared MIA in Vietnam, young Riley packs up her shattered heart and leaves her family, her first love, and “a few small things” behind. By trial and error she builds a new life, working on cars, delivering newspapers, tending bar. She befriends, rescues, and is rescued by a similarly vagabond cast of characters whose “‘unraveled souls’ sting hardest and linger the longest” (The New York Times Book Review). Foolhardy, funny, and wise, Riley’s challenge as she grows into a woman is simple: survive long enough to go home again, or at least figure out where home is, and who might be among the living there.

Lorrie Moore said, “It’s been a long time since a first book contained this much wisdom and knowledge of the world.” The Given World is “an immensely rewarding and remarkable debut” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).

This reading group guide for The Given World includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Marian Palaia. 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

In her riveting debut novel, Marian Palaia courageously explores love, loss, and survival, offering a candid and unforgettable look at what it means to be human. Unable to come to terms with the disappearance of her beloved brother in Vietnam, Riley leaves her home in Montana behind and sets out on a wild and uncertain journey to find peace. From San Francisco to Saigon, she mingles with a cast of tragic figures and misfits—people from all walks of life, bound by the unspeakable suffering they have endured and their fierce struggle to recover some of that which they have lost. Spanning more than twenty-five years, the coming-of-age story of one injured but indefatigable young woman explodes into a stunning portrait of a family, a generation, and a world rocked by war—and still haunted by it long after.

 

Topics for Discussion 

1. Why does Riley leave her home in Montana? What informs the choices she makes about where she travels? Does she ultimately find what she is seeking in each place?

2. How do Riley’s parents respond to her departure and her long absence? Consider how the author uses shifts in point of view to reveal this information. Are the reactions of Riley’s parents expected? Surprising?

3. In the first chapter of the book, Riley says: “They say our early memories are really memories of what we think we remember—stories we tell ourselves—and as we grow older, we re-remember, and often get it wrong along the way. I’m willing to believe that, but I still trust some of my memories.” Is Riley a reliable narrator? How can we determine it? What does the novel seem to indicate about the nature of memory? Is memory a benefit or a curse?

4. Many works of literature depict the effects of war on soldiers, but The Given World offers a look at the effects of war on those left behind. Why might the author have chosen to focus on civilian life rather than on the soldiers? How are those civilians affected by the war?  What commonalities are there in the effects of the war on the civilians and on the soldiers who have made it home?

5. The novel features a relatively large cast of characters. What common experiences or feelings do they seem to share? What message or messages does the book contain about common experience and what it means to be human?  

6. How is redemption treated in the novel? What about faith, hope, forgiveness, reconciliation: do they contribute to redemption?

7. Many of the characters featured in the book are addicts. Discuss the author’s treatment of addiction and recovery.

8. Riley goes by many names within the story. She creates some of the names herself, but is also given various names and nicknames by others. Is the variety of her names related to the theme of identity?

9. Loss is a recurring motif within the novel. What examples of loss occur? Could any have been prevented? How do the characters left behind cope with it? How do they grieve? Do they find meaning or comfort in grieving?

10. The novel exposes various cultural prejudices based on race, gender, and sexual preference. Describe some examples. Do you think such prejudices have waned in the present era?

11. Many of the characters in the novel keep secrets and tell lies. What are some of the lies, and why do the characters choose not to tell the truth? Do any of the characters ultimately come clean? If so, how is the revelation received? What message or messages does the book ultimately offer on the subject of truth?

12. When Riley wanted to know the meaning of what she found in Frank’s books, Frank responded that “most of the time there was no single meaning; a lot depended on who was trying to figure it out, and what they brought with them to the show.” What did he mean? Do you agree with him? If so, what can it teach us about the way we read and interpret literature?

13. At the conclusion of the story, is Riley fulfilled? If not, is she left wanting? What does the conclusion ultimately indicate about her journey? What has she gained and lost as a result of the journey? Would you say her journey was worthwhile?

 

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Compare The Given World to other novels you have read about the Vietnam War and postwar living. What do the stories have in common? How are the characters alike? Who are the narrators of the various stories, and what points of view are represented? How does The Given World stand out from or differ from the other works? Would you say that Marian Palaia offers a new view of war and conflict? Which storytelling styles seemed to you the most persuasive?

2. Have you ever left your country of origin and spent significant time in another? If so, did the experience change you? Did it alter your perspective of yourself or your life back home? Consider other examples of characters in literature who undertook a journey. Did they face obstacles? Were they transformed along the way? Did they return home? What is homecoming all about?

3. Use the novel as a starting point to explore the effects of the Vietnam War. How did the conflict affect the soldiers on both sides? What impact did it have on civilians? What effect did it have on the natural landscape of each country? How did it contribute to cultural and industrial changes in each country? How did the war affect the family unit or alter common ideas of love and faith? How have more recent conflicts affected the people and countries engaged in those conflicts? Do the effects differ?

 

A Conversation with Marian Palaia

Can you tell us about your inspiration for The Given World? What were the novel’s origins? How did you begin?

I wrote one chapter of the book (“Girl, Three Speeds, Pretty Good Brakes”) years ago as a standalone short story, about a girl in a gas station who was missing her brother and a good part of “whatever it is that centers us.” In 2010 I went back to school to get my MFA at Madison, and during the first semester, while working with Lorrie Moore, I wrote two more stories in which the girl of that first piece turned up again. Lorrie and I met, took a look at the three stories together, and decided it would be a novel. Well, she kind of decided—with my permission, of course—but I kind of went, “Oh, damn,” because the thought of writing a novel terrified me. I really had to fool myself into writing it by telling myself it was just a bunch of short stories about this particular character. Then, when it came time to align the thing as a “real” novel, the editing process was quite daunting, but it was work that felt really good and right, and I learned a massive amount about plot, structure, tension, arc, et cetera, from doing it. Plot had never been my strong suit, and still isn’t, but revising this book made me much more aware of the kinds of things you need in a narrative if you want people to keep reading.

 

What was interesting to you about the particular settings that you chose for the book? Why that particular time period, and those places?

I was a teenager in the 1970s, and Vietnam was very much on my radar. My parents were involved in the antiwar movement, and we lived in Washington, DC, at that time, so we went to the marches, we protested, we watched the war on TV. Years later, when I drove a newspaper truck for the San Francisco Chronicle, many of my carriers (aka paper boys) were Vietnamese, and I got to know them and their families, and some of their stories. That experience, along with having grown up during the war, led (in a not terribly direct fashion) to my moving to Saigon in the mid 1990s. Everyone thought I was crazy, but for whatever reason, I had to do it. It changed my life in a big way. Nothing I had imagined, good or bad, turned out to be true, and I spent enough time there for some things essential about the place to become ingrained in me. Which is not to say I really know Vietnam, or entirely understand its present or its history, but I got a much clearer picture of how much I did not know. Maybe writing The Given World was my way of trying to better understand something so totally ineffable. Aside from that, I have always been deeply affected, for whatever reason, by stories of the people damaged “collaterally” by war: soldiers on both sides, their families, their communities. I think if we ever had to admit to how many lives, generations even, are irrevocably damaged or destroyed by war, maybe we’d try harder to find a better way to settle our differences. Which, really, at the most human level, aren’t differences at all.

 

What made you decide to tell the story from Riley’s perspective—that is, from the point of view of a civilian and more particularly a young woman—rather than from anyone else’s?

Hers was just the first voice, the first life that came to me. In some ways she is very much like me in some of her experiences and outlook, and in other ways not at all. Without getting too much more specific, let’s just say I never stabbed anyone, or lived in my car for more than a few nights.

 

How did you conduct research for the novel? Were any historical texts particularly useful or enlightening, or did you rely more upon your own preexisting knowledge of the subject?

At my house in Montana I have an entire library of Vietnam books, both fiction and nonfiction. I have read them all, most of them more than once, and it is still so much to grasp: all the intricacies of the decisions, the mistakes that were made, how arrogant we were, how little we understood that the war we thought we were fighting was not the one the Vietnamese were fighting—and that’s why we pretty much got our asses handed to us and why all those people died or had their lives wrecked so unnecessarily. That being said, the book isn’t really about the war itself; but however much or little I do know about it informs everything Riley experiences, even as it stays so deeply in the background. I purposely kept it subtle, probably so subtle at times as to be completely undetectable.

 

Did you interview any veterans or other people who lived during the Vietnam War? If so, what struck you most about their accounts of postwar living?

The closest I came to interviewing anyone was talking with my uncle, who served two tours in Vietnam as a Green Beret and was based at Cu Chi, and who has not had the easiest time of it since coming home, but who is still, thankfully, here. Other than that, I have known quite a lot of people over the years who were either veterans of that war or relatives of the soldiers who fought it. In Vietnam I met and became friends with a lot of Vietnamese who had worked with the Americans during the war, including the mechanics who are now fixing bicycles on the sidewalks, and a photographer who worked with the AP and wound up in a reeducation camp afterward. What struck me most about all those people was how necessary it was for them to try to get on with their lives, despite how difficult it must have been. They seem to have turned that page, at least in regard to what they want to talk about, and they are busy living now and don’t have the luxury or the desire to revisit or revise history. As for being able to relate the stories of that generation and the impacts of the war and its aftermath, my oldest friends and I are that generation. That part is firsthand knowledge.

 

Are there any works of fiction about the Vietnam War and its aftermath—or about other wars—that you find particularly inspiring or important?

God, so many. The ones that immediately come to mind are Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien; Le Ly Hayslip’s When Heaven and Earth Changed Places; Robert Olen Butler’s Good Scent From a Strange Mountain; Michael Herr’s Dispatches; Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake; Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War; Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, and Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History. Way too many more to name, but there is no leaving out The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. Such a perfect book. I love that one so much— I’ve probably read it a dozen times. The rest, maybe five or six or seven, only.

 

Excerpts of your novel have appeared online prior to the novel’s publication. How do you feel about their having a life independent of the book?

Since I began as a short-story writer, and since those pieces were more or less written as short stories, I am quite comfortable, and in fact I really love having them out there. It took me a while to get used to writing chapters that would not also pass as standalone stories, but those chapters, I think, do okay on their own.

 

On David Abram’s blog, The Quivering Pen, you said: “A collection of clever lines is not enough . . . it is only a starting place. I think many writers mistake it for a destination.” Can you speak more about that? What would you say is required of a good or successful work of fiction?

Wow. That’s kind of a huge question. I guess I could begin by reiterating that thought: it’s not enough to be clever, in your sentences or in your ideas. And it’s not enough to get from Point A to Point B, that is, simply telling a story. Writing is hard. One of the hardest parts is creating believable, complex, forgivable characters, but the really hard part is being completely emotionally honest. Ripping the scabs off. Uncovering your own heart and showing it to other people.

 

To which of the characters in your novel do you most relate—and why?

I guess that depends on what “relate” means, but Riley, for sure, a lot, because so many of her experiences mirror mine, but also Grace, the girl on the train—but maybe that’s not so surprising, since she is sort of a reflection of a younger Riley, by the time they meet. Funny, it was not deliberate, and until I went back for, like, the seventh revision, I didn’t see their similarities. The other characters I relate to in different ways, but every one of them was (and is) important to me, because a lot of them are the kinds of people who brought me up, more or less, when I first got to San Francisco. I was incredibly clueless, then, about so many things, and the people I learned the most from were the ones who had the least access to equilibrium and were the most scarred, inside or out, or both.

 

How has The Given World influenced your current writing projects or changed the way you write? Do you think you will revisit any of the characters or themes from this novel?

I am working on a new novel, and am much more deliberative about keeping the narrative cohesive, making sure all the pieces fit. I go back to the beginning a lot, to make sure the alignment is tight, and to make sure anything new I add is not random but actually belongs there. Nothing drives me crazier, when I am reading a book or a story, than to come to a part which feels as though the author woke up one morning, sat down at his or her desk, and said, “Oh, here’s an interesting thought I was having,” or “Here’s something unique I overheard; I think I’ll just throw it in,” or “Here’s this paragraph I’ve been saving, and I don’t have much to say today, so let’s just try to squeeze this in and hope no one notices it doesn’t belong.” I believe it is an author’s obligation to build a story, in the same way physical structures are built: you have to have a solid base, and each level (or chapter) has to be supported by what has gone before. Writing The Given World the way I wrote it, and having to go back to make sure that the structure was there, has taught me to stay on top of it all the way through. Going back to the beginning over and over means it will take me a very long time to write the first draft, but it also means less time (maybe) spent revising, even though revision is my favorite part of writing. So maybe going back to the beginning is actually a way to keep doing the part I like, and avoiding the hard part, which is creating new material. Who knows? As far as revisiting characters goes, Lu, or someone who is much like Lu, makes an appearance in the new book. She just kind of showed up, and I liked her, so I kept her. Themes? Oh, yeah. War and the wounded. Bad behavior and what underlies it. Wondering where, or what, home is. Loving the wrong people, or loving the right people the wrong way. Those will always be my themes.

 

Who are some of the storytellers who have influenced your work?

Graham Greene, James Baldwin, Malcolm Lowry, Michael Ondaatje, Arundhati Roy, James Welch, Lorrie Moore, Barry Hannah, Louise Erdrich, Thomas McGuane, Jim Crumley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. For memoir, Joan Didion, Mary Karr, Alexandra Fuller. For poetry, Richard Hugo, Terrance Hayes, Jane Hirschfield. A million others in all camps.

 
Photograph by Erika Peterman

Marian Palaia was born in Riverside, California, and grew up there and in Washington, DC. She lives in San Francisco and has also lived in Montana, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, and Nepal, where she was a Peace Corps volunteer. Marian has also been a truck driver, a bartender, and a logger. The Given World is her first novel.

"Complex and haunting...vivid and unforgettable."

– People

"Ardent, ambitious....These glimpses of other lives are where the poetry of Palaia's writing is most striking....these 'unraveled souls' sting the hardest and linger the longest."

– The New York Times Book Review

"In The Given World, Marian Palaia has assembled a collection of restive seekers and beautifully told their stories of love and lovelessness, home and homelessness, with an emphasis on both makeshift and enduring ideas of family. It has been a long time since a first book contained this much wisdom and knowledge of the world. She has a great ear for dialogue, a feel for dramatic confrontation, and a keen understanding of when background suddenly becomes foreground. She is a strong, soulful, and deeply gifted writer."

– Lorrie Moore, author of Bark

"Not all the American casualties of Vietnam went to war. In stunning, gorgeous prose, in precise, prismatic detail, Palaia begins with that rupture and works her way deep into the aftermath -- its impact on one person, on one family, on one country. Riveting and revelatory."

– Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

“Much of this deeply felt work reverberates with the tones of a modern Western — except that its tough-talking hero is a woman... Riley’s voice, all surliness and cheek, easily suggests the shattered heart below the surface. This is not a small feat: It’s a balancing act to deliver a self-punishing, defiant, vulnerable character without veering into caricature — while still inciting readers to want to know more. Palaia has managed it....The novel’s fine accomplishment is to move Riley steadily through her quest against such jagged odds that we can only cross fingers she’ll make it… rich, often dark, intricate plotting… All [the characters] are painted vividly; they’re individuals we can see, hear, and smell — as is Saigon, our own fog-cloaked city, sticky barroom interiors, and Big Sky country… the book’s final pages take readers on a scenic train ride to the gentlest, most throttled reckoning I can remember, and to the quiet possibility — scarcely there — of a next chapter.”

– San Francisco Chronicle

"Palaia is skilled at mixing bitter and sweet — an uplifting ending is loosely constructed and leaves a reader floating in a way that feels entirely grounded in how it captures life’s unpredictability."

– San Francisco Examiner

"A haunting meditation on the aftermath of war and the search for inner peace."

– San Jose Mercury News

“Riley's a mess and knows it; but in Palaia's very capable hands, she's a survivor and an admirable mess…The Given World is a moving novel of an era that just won't go away.”

– Shelf Awareness

"Palaia demonstrates a magnificent command of craft for a first-time novelist, but it's her emotional honesty that makes this story so rich and affecting....An immensely rewarding and remarkable debut."

– Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"There is no denying Palaia's immense writing talent. She is able to convey three pieces of information in one elegant sentence, and she writes paragraphs that build meaning upon metaphorical meaning that leave your highlighter used up and dry--and you anticipating her next novel."

– Booklist

"The novel’s true strengths are the variety of characters Riley meets on her journey and the sense of America changing with the decades. In the end, what the reader takes away is a visceral appreciation for how many lives, both on and off the battlefield, were permanently altered by the Vietnam War.”

– Publishers Weekly

"Palaia's prose is hypnotizing...fresh...not without a dark beauty."

– Library Journal

"What is likely to remain with reader is the haunting vividness Palaia brings to Riley’s isolated Hi-Line ranch, her down-if-not-quite-out San Francisco streets, and the decadent expat bars of postwar Ho Chi-Minh City."

– Billings Gazette

"Marian Palaia is a writer of remarkable talent. In Riley, she has captured Vietnam's long shadow with prose that cuts straight to the bone. Readers who enjoyed Jennifer Egan's The Invisible Circus will love The Given World."

– Suzanne Rindell, author of The Other Typist

"Marian Palaia is a writer of startling grace and sensuous lyricism—reading her, you feel as if you've never heard language this beautiful and this true."

– Jonis Agee, author of The River Wife

"Some rare books give you the sense that a writer has been walking around with a story for years, storing it up, ruminating on it. This is one of those books. I'm grateful for the slow and patient emergence of these words on the page. No sentence is wasted. However long The Given World took, it was worth every minute."

– Peter Orner, author of The Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge

"From the moment I met Riley I was drawn into her world, which is really ours, America in the last century as it careened into this one. I found this novel as thrilling and surprising as a ride on a vintage motorcycle, along the winding, sometimes hair-raising but always arresting ride that is Riley’s life. It is a trip I will always remember."

– Jesse Lee Kercheval, author of My Life as a Silent Movie

"Marian Palaia has imaginatively engaged the Vietnam War these many decades later and transformed it into a brilliant and complex narrative able to transcend that war, all wars, all politics, all eras and illuminate the great and eternally enduring human quest for self, for an identity, for a place in the universe. The Given World is a splendid first novel by an exciting new artist."

– Robert Olen Butler, winner of the Pulitzer Prize

"The Given World is astonishing in every regard: the voice, the range of characters, the charismatic, colloquial dialogue, the ability to summon, through telling detail, geographically diverse worlds that are far flung, but still cohere. Vietnam, counter-cultural San Francisco, the Vietnam War draft’s resonance on a Montana reservation, all give evocative shape and texture to an historical era. It’s edgy, often cutting, humorous, and impassioned."

– Rob Nixon

“Palaia is a lovely writer, adept at creating characters who linger in the mind even if they only last on the page for a few pages. By the end, each of these glimpses comes together to form a fully-rounded portrait of a woman on the run, and how she finally arrived somewhere.”

– Capitol Times

"The Given World is about a lost generation coming of age too quickly… It shows us the effects of war from an unusual perspective – that of a devoted little sister who is looking for her MIA brother or, heartbreakingly, a way to live in the world without him. This is also a love story in many of its dimensions: the intimacy of friendship between two women, the temporary but crucial bonds of expats, a love between two gay men that is tested when one infects the other with HIV, a mother's love for her daughter, and a sister's love for her brother.”

– Missoulian

“The reader’s payoff is found over and over again in Riley’s acute observations of all that searching, disappointment, and moving on. Palaia’s prose is acrobatic and elegant… [She] slathers these pages with her gift of language, sentence-making, and wise observation.”

– Washington Independent Review of Books