The Secret of Raven Point

A Novel

LIST PRICE $17.00

About The Book

From the award-winning author of Easter Island comes a powerful, “unputdownable” (Vogue.com) novel of love, loss, and redemption amid the ruins of war-torn Italy.

1943: When seventeen-year-old Juliet Dufresne receives a cryptic letter from her enlisted brother and then discovers that he’s been reported missing in action, she lies about her age and travels to the front lines as an army nurse, determined to find him. Shy and awkward, Juliet is thrust into the bloody chaos of a field hospital, a sprawling encampment north of Rome where she forges new friendships and is increasingly consumed by the plight of her patients. One in particular, Christopher Barnaby, a deserter awaiting court martial, may hold the answer to her brother’s whereabouts—but the trauma of war has left him catatonic. Racing against the clock, Juliet works with an enigmatic young psychiatrist, Dr. Henry Willard, to break Barnaby’s silence before the authorities take him away. Plunged into the horrifying depths of one man’s memories of combat, Juliet and Willard together plumb the moral nuances of a so-called “just war” and face the dangers of their own deepening emotional connection.

In vibrant, arresting prose, Vanderbes tells the story of one girl’s fierce determination to find her brother as she comes of age in a time of unrelenting violence. An unforgettable war saga that captures the experiences of soldiers long after the battles have ended, The Secret of Raven Point is heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting: “The only disappointing thing about this book is that it has to end” (Library Journal, starred review).

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Secret of Raven Point includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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

It’s 1943 when seventeen-year-old Juliet Dufresne receives a cryptic letter from her enlisted older brother pleading for help, and then finds out he’s been reported missing overseas. Shy and awkward, Juliet lies about her age and volunteers as an army nurse to find him. She is thrust into the bloody chaos of a field hospital, stationed north of Rome where she forges new friendships with her fellow nurses and is increasingly consumed by the plight of her patients. Christopher Barnaby, a deserter awaiting court martial, may hold the answer to Juliet’s brother’s fate—but the trauma of war has left him unable to speak. Racing against the clock, Juliet works with an enigmatic young psychiatrist, Henry Willard, to heal Barnaby’s psychic wound before the authorities take him away and any clues as to her brother’s fate are forever lost. Plunged into the horrifying depths of one man’s combat memories, Juliet and Willard are forced to plumb the moral nuances of a so-called just war, and face the dangers of their own deepening connection.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. In the beginning of the novel, Juliet’s identity is largely determined by her relationship to her brother and what it means to be “Tuck’s little sister.” How does Juliet’s sense of self change throughout the novel?
 
2. How was Juliet affected by her mother’s death and growing up without a female role model? How does Juliet find other female role models later in life? How does it affect her relationships with men? How does Juliet find other female role models later in life?
 
3. Which character did you find the most compelling? Which character did you empathize with the most? Why?
 
4. Consider Juliet’s role as a nurse at the front in Italy. How does she mature throughout her time in Italy? How does she show her bravery? Does her personal desire to get information from Barnaby in any way undermine her role as his nurse?
 
5. How do the nurses and doctors at the front cope when they’re confronted with death and the fragility of life on a daily basis? How does this affect the way they perceive the value of human life? Consider this passage from page 49: “Skin and ligaments held it all together, the entirety of the mass of flesh she called herself. But no bone of hers looked much different from someone else’s bone; her femur would roughly mirror the femur of any soldier on the operating table; none of the flesh she’d seen in the hospitals—the torn muscles, the exposed stomachs, the broken ribs—had anything to do with the people it belonged to. The same delicate pieces made up everyone, and if the wrong pieces or too many pieces broke, the whole person ceased to exist. Juliet had witnessed this daily for months, and yet the strangeness of it never subsided.”
 
6. How did you react to Barnaby’s stories during his sessions with Dr. Willard? How did these stories of being bullied by Captain Brilling and the other soldiers paint a picture of life at the front?
 
7. In what way does the novel’s depiction of World War II support or undermine your previous understanding of that war? Consider the story Dr. Willard tells about the Goumier soldiers after the battle of Monte Cassino. Is the battle fatigue Dr. Willard is treating similar to what soldiers experience in today’s conflicts?
 
8. Consider what Juliet’s relationships with Beau, Dr. Willard, and even Brother Reardon reveal about her femininity and sexuality. Think about the contrast between Glenda’s social life at the field hospital and Juliet’s.
 
9. How does each of the characters deal with death and dying? How does Juliet come to terms with the thought that Tucker is dead? Consider this excerpt as Juliet discovers a corpse in the woods near the lake on their leave from the hospital: “The pain of death had always frightened Juliet, but she saw now that solitude wrought the greater horror. Had Tuck been left somewhere, abandoned?” (p. 133)
 
10. After Mother Hen’s death, Juliet discovers that Dr. Willard is not as stalwart in his beliefs as she thought he was. Why do Dr. Willard and the others work to heal men who may return to the front and die? Why did Mother Hen try to save a man that was already dying? How does this form Juliet’s concept of justice? In the end, is Juliet more frightened of death or an unjust world?
 
11. Brother Reardon has the courage to do what Dr. Willard and Juliet could not when he runs off with Barnaby. How does this moment provide each of the characters with an opportunity to redeem themselves?
 
12. Juliet is surprised to see Liberata again, her spirit reduced, her brother lost. Why is Juliet upset that Liberata no longer pleads for her help? What did the other characters lose in the war? What do they find?
 
13. How did you react to the letter that Juliet receives from Barnaby? Why do you think he decided to write to her? Should it affect Juliet’s memory of her brother?
 

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Pair your book club’s reading of The Secret of Raven Point with a nonfiction account of WWII. Try The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines or And If I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses in World War II.
 
2. Consider making a contribution, donating your time as a therapist, skilled professional or as an advocate for The Soldiers Project, which provides mental health support to veterans and soldiers. Learn more here: http://www.thesoldiersproject.org/how-to-help/.
 
3. Check out Jennifer Vanderbes’s previous books Strangers at the Feast and Easter Island. Visit her website at JenniferVanderbes.com.

About The Author

Photograph by Eamon Hickey

Jennifer Vanderbes is the author of the novels The Secret of Raven Point, Easter Island, and Strangers at the Feast, and is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a New York Public Library Cullman Fellowship. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Granta and has been translated into sixteen languages. She lives in New York City. Visit her website at JenniferVanderbes.com.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (April 7, 2015)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439167045

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Raves and Reviews

The Secret of Raven Point is about piecing together meaning in lives and minds shattered by war. It's a meditation on the power of steadfast love in all its forms –romantic, fraternal, platonic, even divine—to restore wholeness out of chaos, and light out of unspeakable darkness. Jennifer Vanderbes gives us characters we care about and a story we believe in an engrossing novel that brings home the particularity of war. A moving tribute to a generation of men and women whose stories, and whose lives, for the most part are now lost to us, it's a great read.”

– M.L. Stedman, author of The Light Between Oceans

The Secret of Raven Point is strikingly vivid, tackling war’s moral ambiguities from the open-eyed perspective of a young American woman on the cusp of adulthood…Vanderbes’s unputdownable third novel… finds contemporary resonance in classic themes of humanity and loyalty tested by extremes…[Juliet is] her most indelible character to date.”

– Megan O'Grady, Vogue.com

“A sweet and sad love story…An unforgettable saga.”

– Christian Science Monitor

The Secret of Raven Point draws the reader in with evocative period drama and a rich emotional portrait of its heroine. An arresting, exciting journey of discovery from an extremely talented author.”

– Matthew Pearl, author of The Technologists and The Dante Club

“Fresh, compelling…War gives men and women a chance to become monsters or heroes, and Vanderbes finds her footing exploring these two extremes…[Juliet] is a companionable protagonist...She emerges from the experience as someone altered yet not conquered by war….Vanderbes performs admirably.”

– The Washington Post

“A touching tale of a sister’s love for her brother, but the underlying themes are much deeper. Readers will fall in love with the delightful Juliet, who is a smart and courageous heroine, and other hospital workers as they form friendships and struggle to accept tragedy and loss while treating their patients' physical and mental wounds…The only disappointing thing about this book is that it has to end.”

– Library Journal, starred review

“Jennifer Vanderbes' The Secret of Raven Point should do for war-era Italy what Hilary Mantel has done for 1500's England. That is, it proves that fiction can be history with blood in its veins, quickening for us the violence and sadness and the awful incongruity of war. A brilliant novelist, and a book to treasure and never to forget.”

– Darin Strauss, author of Chang & Eng and Half a Life

"The Secret of Raven Point is a subtle evocation of war and loss, which Jennifer Vanderbes—with extraordinary cleverness and restraint—explores slantwise, the story coming visible through its glimmering contours, like an embossing on fine paper or an impression in snow."

– Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia

“Part mystery, part coming-of-age tale, part World War II novel, Vanderbes’s…moving latest…is an empathetic, oblique take on the layers of damage done during war…Unusual and affecting”

– Kirkus Reviews

“Vanderbes graphically depicts the gruesome nature of battlefield injuries, both to the body and to the psyche, even as she shows Juliet’s courage and strength. The skillful Vanderbes’ aching depiction of Juliet’s struggle to maintain her humanity amid the army’s callous bureaucracy and the horrors of war works as both an homage to our armed forces and a moving personal story of emotional growth.”

– Booklist

The Secret of Raven Point at first seems to be the mystery of a young man gone missing in World War II, but as the pages begin to fly by, the layers become deeper…This novel had me wrapped in the lives of the couple, who endure much personal loss and yet manage to find humanity in the darkest of times. Definitely one of my favorite reads of the year.”

– The Historical Novel Society

"The Secret of Raven Point is that rare book that reminds us of the deep, immersive pleasures of novel-reading: of getting lost in a story, of being transported to another time and place, of growing so attached to characters that they feel as present and real as one’s own friends. Jennifer Vanderbes takes a harrowing but little-known chapter from WWII history and through her compassionate and brilliant rendering, transforms it into a story that is urgent, personal, and profoundly moving."

– Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, National Book Award-Nominated author of Madeleine is Sleeping

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