This reading group guide for The Sharp Hook of Love 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.
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Introduction The Sharp Hook of Love
retells the story of Heloise and Abelard, twelfth-century Parisian lovers. Beautifully incorporating language from the real couple’s letters to each other, the novel traces the story of their romance as it blossoms from a meeting of the minds into a forbidden love affair. United by love even when pulled apart by families, friends, and society, Heloise and Abelard learn what it means to truly sacrifice one’s life for a beloved. As intimate as it is erotic, as devastating as it is beautiful, The Sharp Hook of Love
teaches readers that true love can never be thwarted. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. “For nothing is under less control than the heart—having no power to command it we are forced to obey,”, writes the historical Heloise in a letter to Abelard. This quote is used by the author as an epigraph for the novel, and as such, it frames the story that ensues as one about control—or lack thereof. Who or what is in control in The Sharp Hook of Love
? Who or what is out of control? Do any of the characters successfully disobey their heart?
2. Heloise, the narrator, begins her story by claiming, “I was born in silence” (ix). How does this statement act as an omen for what will occur in the novel? In addition to living a cloistered life, how else is Heloise silenced, literally and/or figuratively?
3. The idea of going home or of making a home is a central motif in the novel. For Heloise, the notion of “home” is not one of comfort but of fear and loneliness. That is, until she meets Abelard. What does the idea of “home” mean for each of the characters in the story? Do you think that Heloise and Abelard ever get home? Why or why not?
4. Discuss the role of women in The Sharp Hook of Love
. How do women’s roles in twelfth-century Paris differ from today? How are they similar? How did Heloise break stereotypes for women in her day?
5. Does Heloise’s Uncle Fulbert have any redeeming qualities, or is he pure evil? Do you think his intentions for Heloise were pure of heart, or motivated by self-interest? Is it possible that his intentions could be both?
6. Revisit the scene beginning on page 44 when Heloise nearly drowns in the Seine. Do you think this moment acts as a hinge for their relationship, swinging it in the direction of a full-blown affair? Why do you think this particular moment allows Heloise to trust in Abelard? Without this experience, do you think that Heloise would have given in to her feelings? Why or why not?
7. Do you agree that the inescapability of destiny is a possible theme of The Sharp Hook of Love
? Do all the characters fulfill their destiny? Consider Heloise, Abelard, Uncle Fulbert, Jean, and Agnes in your response.
8. On page 113, Heloise and Abelard consummate their love for one another when Abelard takes Heloise when she is asleep, “imbuing [her] with his breath.” How does this act, described as giving breath to Heloise, prefigure Abelard’s kiss to Heloise on his deathbed? What symbolism can you glean from this action of filling another with your breath? Explore this scene in relation to the idioms “the kiss of death” and “breath of life.”
9. In what ways are the characters in the novel motivated by self-interest? Do you think it’s fair to classify all of the characters as selfish, to some extent? Who might be the most selfish character, and why? Who might be the least?
10. “I pray that, someday, you will understand” (ix). These last words spoken to Heloise by her mother echo throughout the novel, haunting Heloise. Does Heloise come to understand, as her mother had hoped she would? What does Heloise mean when she says she has been “pierced by the sharp hook of love”? (334) 11. Is Heloise to blame for leaving her child to be raised by her in-laws? Do you think she makes the best possible decision, given the circumstances? Why or why not?
12. To varying degrees, Heloise and her mother both have trouble admitting the truth to their respective beloveds, Abelard and Robert. Why do you think they choose to keep their secrets to themselves? In the case of Heloise, would honesty have been the best policy with regard to the letter she wrote to her uncle that led to his attack on Abelard? Would Heloise have benefited from her mother’s honesty about her father and the reason for her abandonment?
13. Do you agree with the definition of love presented by Heloise on page 345: “To truly love, we must be willing to give of ourselves, even our very lives.” What does Heloise give up for her lover? What does Abelard give up? Do you think their sacrifices are equal? Why or why not?
14. “I lifted my hand to rub my eyes, and found my face wet with tears” (348), says Heloise near the end of the novel. What is the significance of this moment in the story? How does the inability to cry throughout most of the novel isolate Heloise or impact her relationships with others? What does it imply about her character—and the power of love—that she is finally able to cry as she watches Abelard leave the abbey? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Heloise and Abelard’s love grows out of a shared love for classical literature, philosophy, and rhetoric. Without Heloise’s talent and interest in learning, the two might never have met. Explore some of the lover’s favorite texts, including Ovid’s Heroides
(the text can be accessed here: http://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidHeroides1.html). Take turns reading part of this classic poem out loud to your book club. What similarities can you find between the lovers in Ovid’s poem and the main characters in The Sharp Hook of Love
? Why do you think Heloise and Abelard were drawn to this poem? Do stories of star-crossed lovers ever feel out of date? Discuss contemporary examples of ill-fated lovers. What does the proliferation of these types of story say about the human condition?
2. On page 26, Heloise describes the game of elocution she plays with Abelard through their letter writing, a game that turns into a series of confessions about the depth of feeling the two share. There is something deeply intimate about the act of letter writing, and so often people are able to put into words what they cannot say face-to-face. Have each member of your book club write a letter to a real or imagined beloved. Over dinner, share with your group the experience of writing a letter. Have you written to someone you love before? How does putting something in to a letter differ from saying it out loud?
3. Have a movie night with your book club, watching a couple of versions of Romeo & Juliet
(1997, 1968). Draw parallels between these films and The Sharp Hook of Love
. How are Heloise and Abelard similar to Romeo and Juliet? How do they differ? In your opinion, which couple suffers more?
4. Read another Sherry Jones book with your book club, such as Four Sisters
, All Queens
, or The Jewel of Medina
. What do her characters all have in common? How would you characterize Jones’s writing style? Pick your favorite scene in each book and share with your book club.