This reading group guide for The Parting Glass includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Gina Marie Guadagnino. 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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By day, Mary Ballard is lady’s maid to Charlotte Walden, wealthy and accomplished belle of New York City high society. Mary loves Charlotte with an obsessive passion that goes beyond a servant’s devotion, but Charlotte would never trust Mary again if she knew the truth about her devoted servant’s past. Because Mary’s fate is linked to that of her mistress, one of the most sought-after debutantes in New York, Mary’s future seems secure—if she can keep her own secrets…
But on her nights off, Mary sheds her persona as prim and proper lady’s maid to reveal her true self—Irish exile Maire O’Farren—and finds release from her frustration in New York’s gritty underworld—in the arms of a prostitute and as drinking companion to a decidedly motley crew consisting of a barkeeper and members of a dangerous secret society.
Meanwhile, Charlotte has a secret of her own—she’s having an affair with a stable groom, unaware that her lover is actually Mary’s own brother. When the truth of both women’s double lives begins to unravel, Mary is left to face the consequences. Forced to choose between loyalty to her brother and loyalty to Charlotte, between society’s respect and true freedom, Mary finally learns that her fate lies in her hands alone.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. How does the opening line, “It was Thursday again, and once more I was courting misery with both arms wide open (1)” set up the tone and voice of the novel?
2. Guadagnino starts each chapter with a quote from The Duties of a Lady’s Maid
. What function do these lessons serve while reading? Do you see the remnants of any of the lessons in today’s society?
3. One lesson from The Duties of a Lady’s Maid
is, “Desire nothing but what is within your reach; for if your desires are unreasonable, you may be certain of disappointments (28).” Another says, “If you wish to be happy, avoid all such tales of love and adventure, for they will only fill your fancy with vain images, and make you hopelessly wish for miraculous events that can never happen (93).” How does this theme play out in various ways throughout the novel?
4. At the beginning of the novel, Maire longs desperately for Charlotte. “At night, I would lie in my bed and replay all things we had said to each other that day—and did she think me clever, or good (32)?” What did you think about her unrequited love? Have you ever experienced a love like this, and did Guadagnino do a good job capturing that feeling?
5. As Maire despairs over Charlotte, we meet Liddie Lawrence, a queer, black-identifying prostitute with a taste for Shakespeare and dreams of owning her own brothel. How did you interpret this character? In what ways did she resonate with you? What role did she play in the novel?
6. “I must here remark that I have always thought that anyone laboring under the delusion that women are the weaker sex is unfamiliar with the field of battle that is a society ballroom. For the ballroom is not the place of leisure and frivolity it purports to be. The music is there, I’ve always felt, the drown out the drums of war (61).” What do you think Maire means by this? Do you believe this sentiment or think it applies to our culture today? Who creates the battlegrounds of men versus women, and who decides which are frivolous and which are not?
7. Maire reflects on the way that women of high society are expected to cultivate only those skills that are deemed necessary to attract a husband. “I have always thought it was the most bitter injustice that gentlemen of means are encouraged to develop those talents in which they show promise, for these accomplishments are but an ornament to their attractions to society, while a young lady of means diminishes her worth when she seeks to cultivate a particular talent (87).” What is one way you see this happening today?
8. At one point, Maire asks Liddie why she ever went back to “stargazing,” and Liddie chastises her for assuming she isn’t doing exactly what she likes: “That’s queer. I never did peg you for the sort that objected to a woman’s pleasure, seeing as you’ve no qualms about taking your own (99).” Why is Liddie so offended and Maire ultimately ashamed of this question? Did Liddie’s explanation of why she “stargazes” alter your perspective at all?
9. What would you have done in Maire’s situation, knowing Charlotte was pregnant with her brother’s child? Do you understand why she didn’t tell her brother?
10. When Maire and Seanin arrive in New York, Dermot advises them to change their names and “keep the country out of your voice as best you can (130).” How did their story illuminate the plight of Irish immigrants in the 19th century?
11. Were you shocked by Liddie’s revelations about Johnny, his “protection,” and her experience of extortion and abuse at the hands of his men?
12. Discuss the relationship between Maire and Seanin. If you have siblings, did you find it relatable?
13. As Maire watches the young maids staring at potential suitors, she thinks, “What must it be like to wear one’s want and need so baldly on one’s face, advertising one’s intentions for all to see—indeed, hoping for it to be seen, and recognized, and returned. I was too used to schooling my features to blush or become otherwise moved by such a thought (218).” Compared to Maire, these women are allowed to plainly show their desires because they are socially acceptable desires. Thinking again about the lessons from Duties of a Lady's Maid,
can desire be a privilege?
14. Maire’s father told her that “there are moments in your life that show you who and what you are, and those moments, however rarely they may come, define your character and the course of your history (226).” Do you believe this to be true? Have you ever had one of those moments? What did it tell you about yourself?
15. What did you think of the ending?!Enhance Your Book Club
1. Next month, read Sarah Water’s Fingersmith
or Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin.
Compare and contrast with The Parting Glass.
2. Do some research on the 1836 attack on Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and Ancient Order of the Hibernians (an organization that exists to this day.) What else do you learn about the plight of Irish Catholics at this point in American history?
3. Read the book or watch the movie Brooklyn
(by Colm Toibin),
and discuss its connections to this novel.
4. If you can, visit or take a tour of New York City’s Washington Square Park to bring the novel’s setting to life.A Conversation with Gina Marie Guadagnino Can you give us a sense of how much research went into this novel? What aspect of the setting or story did you spend the most time researching?
I wanted to make sure that this book was as comprehensively researched as possible, so I spent a lot of time reading scholarly journals, history books, and primary sources in an effort to reflect the period accurately. Because I had the idea for the story in mind, I had to research as I wrote, which slowed both processes down considerably. It ended up taking me five years, though I often was either researching or writing, toggling between the two. I already had a fairly good handle on the time period, and so I spent much of my time on very specific things, like 19th century menstrual hygiene practices, and the formation of Irish cultural societies (secret and otherwise). I actually encountered the most difficulty researching how Liddie would have done her hair – as I’m sure you can imagine, there is not exactly a wealth of information on the hair dressing practices of biracial women in the antebellum north!Where were the gaps in sources that you had to fill with your imagination?
Much of the way in which the Ancient Order of Hibernians operates in the novel is product of my imagination. While the Order was founded around the events depicted in the novel, and while it did have ties to the Irish nationalist movement, the ways in which specifically operates in The Parting Glass
are conjecture on my part. There were many secret societies in Ireland with republican aims that also took root in the Irish diaspora, and many of them had links to street gangs, to Tammany Hall, etc. I have imagined here a world where the AOH fills all of those roles simultaneously – though of course, some individual members surely must have had many of those affiliations in reality. What aspect of life as a lady’s maid was the most important for you to convey to readers, through both the story and the excerpts from Duties of A Lady’s Maid?
I chose passages from Duties of a Lady’s Maid
that reflected the utter devotion, self-sacrifice, and self-effacement expected from women in service. Phrases like “desire nothing” directed at a woman whose job it was to anticipate and cater to another woman’s desires perfectly encapsulate the toxic dynamic between Charlotte and Maire. Maire only truly becomes critical of Charlotte’s expectations when she begins to realize that there would no longer be a well-defined role for her in Charlotte’s life after her marriage to Seanin. It never quite occurs to Charlotte that Maire is more than an accessory, and it is not until the two women meet in the book’s epilogue that Maire at last allows Charlotte to be uncomfortable enough to recognize that she is a distinct person, no longer bound to attend to Charlotte’s whims. I was also drawn to the many references Duties of a Lady’s Maid
makes to keeping one’s mistress’s secrets. The implication there was that a lady’s maid is a professional confidant, and when you consider how dependent a certain class of woman would have been on her servants, you have to consider that in addition to catering to their physical needs, they were also doing a lot of emotional labor. I was struck by how explicit Duties of a Lady’s Maid
made both of these expectations, and allowed them to be my guiding principles as I built the relationship between Charlotte and Maire.Liddie is such a phenomenal character. Where did the inspiration for her come from and how plausible is she historically?
Liddie is probably one of my favorite characters. I’d been thinking about her (or at least the concept for her) for quite some time, as I’ve long been fascinated by the fact that often, historically, sex-workers could enjoy a greater degree of personal autonomy and social mobility than their landed and leisure class counterparts. Sex work was openly practiced much more widely in the 19th century, and female brothel owners had the potential to be some of the more wealthy and powerful women in their communities. Certainly, there were plenty of women of color and immigrants who had similar career trajectories, with varying degrees of success. Of course, the vast majority of sex workers of any race or national origin were far more socially marginal figures, the precarious nature of their work making it challenging for them to achieve the kind of economic success and stability that Liddie achieves in this book. But Liddie has the advantage of being born into a high-class brothel, and therefore has a model that she knows it is possible to attain. Finally, in 19th century New York, after the abolition of slavery in the 1820s but before the race riots of the Civil War period, communities like the Sixth Ward in lower Manhattan would have been far more racially integrated than they would have been at other points in history, making a character like Liddie quite plausible indeed.How did you balance the desire for strong-willed female characters like Liddie and Mary with the confines of their stations?
Just because women of every station have been historically marginalized does not mean that they were not strong-willed. History is full of tenacious, ambitious women who chafed at the confines of the stations into which they were born. That their voices have not had the reach of their male counterparts is due entirely to patriarchal oppression and gendered biases towards men and men’s stories. This novel is about the audacity of women who desire more than the scraps with which society expects them to content themselves. Each character continually tests the limits of what society will allow, aware that even if they successfully cross boundaries, the results could be dire. That tension – testing that balance – is what makes these stories worth telling.In this novel, you give voice to many characters who history so often silences. Was that part of your mission in setting out to write this novel or did it emerge naturally as you wrote?
It was absolutely my mission to give voices to those stories I don’t feel are adequately represented by history or historical fiction. Most novels written in the 19th century deal with lives lived above stairs, giving little consideration to the people who made those lives possible. Historical fiction of the 20th and 21st century has made huge strides in exploring the gritty underbelly of the Gilded Age. In The Parting Glass,
I set out to write about characters I could recognize and see myself and my friends in: working class people striving for something better, immigrants, people of color, queer people. All living in the same place, drinking in the same bars, interacting closely with one another. These things feel “new” to readers not because they haven’t been happening throughout history, but because they haven’t been highlighted as widely as white, heterosexual, upwardly mobile narratives have been.From a “business of bookselling” perspective, the question of sex in a novel is an interesting one. Were you conscious of the line between the book being called an “erotic historical novel” and “historical romance”?
Very! Sex and sexuality play huge roles in most people’s lives, now and historically. The plain fact is that we would not be living on an over-populated planet had not every generation before us been interested in sex! I don’t strive to write “historical romance” or “historical erotica.” I think of what I do as writing historical literary fiction that depicts the everyday lives of everyday people completely and accurately. To deny that the pursuit of sex was part of their lives would be absurd. I think it would be great if we could disengage from the commercial perspective that all historical novels that contain sex are erotic bodice rippers and acknowledge that sex was part of every-day life in history, just as it is now.Why did you feel it was important to include the sex scenes, especially between Mary and Liddie?
Like Liddie, I’m a relentlessly sex-positive person. As a teenager and young adult, I didn’t have many good literary examples of women who were unapologetic about their sexual desires, particularly their desires toward other women. Most often, when sex is depicted, it is a) heterosexual and b) caters to the male gaze. Even sex between women tends to fall in the latter category, so it was deeply important to me that we saw two female characters who were unapologetic in their sexual attraction to one another, and their exploration of that attraction.The theme of desire in this novel is so complex and fascinating—in particular the question of who society allows to have which desires. Is that something you grappled with in the process of writing?
Absolutely. The idea of whose desires are valid – nurtured and encouraged by society – and whose are reviled is such an intriguing concept. Traditionally, in western culture, there has been a clear hierarchy of desire: affluent, heterosexual, white male desire clearly being paramount. None of the main characters in this book fit that description, and the ways in which they pursue desires that society has deemed improper and unattainable drive the plot of The Parting Glass.
The entire narrative structure is predicated on the fact that a set of marginalized characters have been told that their deepest desires are impossible, but they are driven to great lengths in an effort to realize them in defiance of societal expectations.What was the hardest part of the book to write, and what was the most fun? Were you sad to see anything get left on the cutting room floor?
Like Maire, I love playing with voice, so I definitely had the most fun when I was writing dialogue and imaging the tone and cadences of my characters. The 19th century had some remarkable slang, which I enjoyed indulging in.
The hardest part to write was the sexual violence that Liddie experiences at Quigley’s hands, and I decided to cut the explicit depictions in favor of a more oblique reference because there are far too many gratuitous depictions of sexual violence against women in media, and I had no desire to add to them.
However, in an earlier draft of the novel, I gave Maire a very different backstory. I eventually transferred many elements of that backstory to her first girlfriend, Nuala, but since Nuala is a relatively minor character, much of that backstory didn’t make it onto the page. I’m hoping to revisit Nuala again in a future book, so I’m not going to reveal them here – you’ll have to keep reading!Many issues addressed in this book feel extremely pertinent right now, especially discrimination, class violence, and immigration. Were you surprised at all in your research at the parallels to today?
I don’t think I was surprised so much as wearied by how little has changed. I grew up in the 90s, at a time when the public discourse was very much on the strides American society had made on many of these social issues, and the political messaging was deterministic. Over the course of my adulthood, I’ve seen much of that optimism fade in the face of the hate and intolerance that has bloomed like toxic algae in response to progress toward equality. It is disheartening to see that musty 19th century arguments against women’s bodily autonomy, immigration, racial equality, and other social issues are still being used today, sometimes verbatim. To that end, it remains crucial that we continue to work to break down those barriers, in fiction as well as in our lived experiences.What are you working on next?
My next novel, set in the 1810s, will be a reverse Gothic novel, in that the main characters are too proud of being logical and rational to see that the events unfolding around them are stranger and more improbable that they could possibly realize. Like The Parting Glass
, it will focus heavily on the experiences of women attempting to live their lives beyond the narrow scope of the roles society has handed them. It will also touch on immigration and colonialism, and will feature an exploration of the historical opioid crisis in ways that I am sure will resonate with readers today.