A baker in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, must travel to Paris to uncover a family secret for her dying grandmother—and what she learns may change everything. The Sweetness of Forgetting is the book that made Kristin Harmel an international bestseller.
At thirty-six, Hope McKenna-Smith is no stranger to bad news. She lost her mother to cancer, her husband left her for a twenty-two year old, and her bank account is nearly depleted. Her own dreams of becoming a lawyer long gone, she’s running a failing family bakery on Cape Cod and raising a troubled preteen.
Now, Hope’s beloved French-born grandmother Mamie, who wowed the Cape with her fabulous pastries for more than fifty years, is drifting away into a haze of Alzheimer’s. But in a rare moment of clarity, Mamie realizes that unless she tells Hope about the past, the secrets she has held on to for so many years will soon be lost forever. Tantalizingly, she reveals mysterious snippets of a tragic history in Paris. And then, arming her with a scrawled list of names, she sends Hope to France to uncover a seventy-year-old mystery.
Hope’s emotional journey takes her through the bakeries of Paris and three religious traditions, all guided by Mamie’s fairy tales and the sweet tastes of home. As Hope pieces together her family’s history, she finds horrific Holocaust stories mixed with powerful testimonies of her family’s will to survive in a world gone mad. And to reunite two lovers torn apart by terror, all she’ll need is a dash of courage, and the belief that God exists everywhere, even in cake...
This reading group guide forThe Sweetness of Forgettingincludes 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.
To say that Hope McKenna-Smith’s life hasn’t turned out quite the way she planned would be an understatement. At thirty-six, she’s a law school dropout, a divorcée, the owner of a nearlybankrupt bakery in a Cape Cod tourist town, and the caretaker of her beloved, Alzheimer’s-stricken grandmother, Mamie.
When Mamie suddenly presents Hope with a list of names and urges her to travel to Paris to find these mysterious strangers, Hope nearly dismisses the request as yet another one of her grandmother’s delusions. But when she decides to take a chance on the unknown, Hope embarks on a trip of a lifetime; one that will take her both through Mamie’s haunted past and through her own journey of self-discovery.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Readers first encounter Mamie when she is sitting by her window at l’heure bleue waiting for the stars to come out as she does every day. Why is it so important for Mamie to gaze at the stars every evening, and what do the stars come to symbolize? Why does she name her bakery after the North Star?
2. Describe Hope’s relationship with her daughter Annie at the beginning of the novel. How are they similar? How are they different from one another? How does their relationship change over the course of the novel? How does their quest to discover Mamie’s past affect their relationship?
3. In contrast to Mamie and Jacob’s belief in love at first sight, Hope has resigned herself to the idea that she will never find true love. How and why does Hope’s attitude to love change throughout the novel? How do her interactions and conversations with the men in the novel—Gavin, Alain, and Jacob—serve to change how she feels about love? Do you believe in love at first sight?
4. How does food serve as a bridge between cultures and characters throughout The Sweetness of Forgetting? What memories and traditions are baked into Hope’s creations, and how does baking help her preserve the past? What does Hope gain when she learns about the unexpected origins of her creations, particularly the Star Pie?
5. Describe Mamie’s belief in God, prayer, and religion. How difficult do you think it was for her to hide her true religion over the years, and how does it change her as a person? How was she was able to maintain her Jewish faith while practicing as a Roman Catholic for so many years? Of the differences between religions, what do you think Mamie means when she says: “It is mankind who creates the differences. That does not mean it is not all the same God”?
6. As Mamie struggles to remember her past, Hope meets people like Olivier Berr who help fill in the ever-expanding holes in her grandmother’s memory. How does Hope’s newfound understanding of Mamie’s past help her make sense of her own upbringing and family troubles? Why do the people that Hope meets feel compelled to preserve such a painful history? What do you think would be lost if Hope was not able to find the people who played a role in Mamie’s story?
7. Do you think that Mamie should have told Josephine about her past (or told Hope earlier)? Why or why not? What would you have done if you were Mamie? What impact does keeping such a monumental secret have on Mamie, and on future generations?
8. Elida White introduces Hope and Annie to the Albanian word besa, the act of taking care of those in need. In addition to the Muslims who took in Mamie during World War II, how do the characters of the novel practice besa toward one another? Why is it so difficult for Hope to accept that others want to take care of her, particularly Gavin?
9. How does Hope’s relationship with her mother influence how she raises Annie? What does it mean for Annie and Hope to grow up with such strong and independent women as their mothers, and fathers who are largely absent from their lives?
10. Why is it so important for Hope to keep the North Star Bakery in business? What would be lost if the bakery closed?
11. Hope grew up listening to Mamie’s fairy tales, but she never imagined that the stories were anything but fantasy. What purpose and meaning do the stories serve for the storyteller—Mamie—and the listener—Hope, and later Annie? How does Hope’s understanding of the stories shift as the novel progresses? How do these stories impact Hope’s views on love and fate?
12. Discuss the ending of the novel. Were Mamie and Jacob’s sacrifices for one another worth the suffering that they endured in the end? How does their reunion personally impact each character? What does Hope learn from Mamie’s final letter, and how does it allow her to move forward with her life?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Bake a treat for your book club using one of the North Star Bakery recipes . . . or make something that reflects your family’s heritage! If you have Irish ancestors, make soda bread, or if your family is from Greece, try your hand at baklava! For more ideas and recipes, visit www.world-recipes.info
2. Test your memory skills by playing a game of “Memory” with your book club members. All you need is a standard fifty-two deck of cards. Shuffle the cards and lay them on a flat surface in a square pattern face down. On each turn, a book club member must select two cards. If the cards match, the player keeps the set and takes another turn. If the cards do not match, return the cards face down and move on to the next book club member’s turn. Visit boardgames.about.com/od/cardgames/a/concentration.htm for the full rules and suggestions for how to make the game more challenging! Discuss with your group how it felt to actively try to remember when playing the game. Were you ever frustrated?
3. Consider attending a religious or spiritual service that differs from your own beliefs with your book club members. Discuss what was similar to what you are accustomed to, and what was different. Did you learn anything from your visit? Did it raise any questions about your own beliefs?
Kristin Harmel is the international bestselling author of The Room on Rue Amélie and The Sweetness of Forgetting, along with several other novels. Her work has been featured in People, Woman’s Day, Men’s Health, and Ladies’ Home Journal, among many other media outlets. She lives in Orlando, Florida.
"Harmel manages to deliver an immersive and evocative tale of generations struggling to survive. Recipes sprinkled throughout the book allow readers to experience firsthand the sweetness of Hope's journey." --Publishers Weekly
"THE SWEETNESS OF FORGETTING is absolutely enthralling and full of twists and turns that add to the drama and keeps the tale moving along. Author Kristin Harmel does a magnificent job of telling this saga of one family's search for understanding. She also handles her approach to Alzheimer's disease with gentleness and understanding. Readers will remember THE SWEETNESS OF FORGETTING long after the final page is turned."
– Fresh Fiction
"Kristin Harmel's novels are written with a lot of heart and soul. She has a way of bringing the reader into her stories in such a powerful way that they can often forget they're reading at all. The Sweetness of Forgetting may just be Harmel's best book yet."
– Lisa Steinke, SheKnows Book Lounge
“Kristin Harmel writes with such insight and heart that her characters will stay with you long after you’ve finished her books.” —New York Times bestselling author Emily Giffin
“Kristin Harmel...[is] one of my favorite authors!” –Melissa Senate, bestselling author of The Love Goddess’ Cooking School