This reading group guide for When We Meet Again 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
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When a mysterious painting arrives out of the blue at Emily Emerson’s door, all the heartache and uncertainties in her life bubble to the surface: she is out of work, her mother and grandmother are dead, she isn’t speaking to her father, she abandoned the love of her life, and she gave up her only child for adoption. The painting, which depicts a familiar-looking young woman in a field under a violet sky, stirs a desire in Emily to reconnect with her long-estranged father in an effort to find the grandfather she never knew. Emily and her father travel from Florida to Germany to Georgia and back again, and along the way uncover a family history both beautiful and tragic. In the end, Emily learns about the healing power of art, forgiveness, and love.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Our first encounter with Emily Emerson involves her lying in bed on a Friday morning, discouraged and alone. The scene is broken by a telephone call from her former editor, letting her know a package arrived for her—a package we later learn is the painting of Grandma Margaret. How did you initially characterize Emily? Did you feel sorry for her? Is she a likeable character? Without the arrival of the painting, do you think she would have snapped out of her depression? Why or why not?
2. Very early in the novel, the topic of abandonment arises. Emily’s grandfather abandoned her grandmother and father; her father abandoned her; she abandoned Nick and her daughter, Catherine. Discuss this abandonment motif, considering how each of the characters reacts in the wake of being left behind. Does the title—When We Meet Again
—hint at reconciliation? Do you think all of the characters find reconciliation in the end? Why or why not?
3. Discuss the structure of the narrative. How does the weaving between the past and present-day story lines affect your understanding of the characters? Do you think this “time travel” allows the story to belong to both Emily and her grandparents? How would the story change if we only had Emily’s point of view?
4. On page 33, Jeremiah tells Emily, “sometimes, when one is living with a broken heart, it’s too hard to give voice to the stories that hurt the most.” Consider the ways in which silence shapes the lives of these characters. Is what is not
said a defining aspect of life for Emily, her father, her grandparents, etc.?
5. “Do you really think one bad experience has the power to change a person’s character . . . ?” Myra asks Emily, and she replies that yes, “if you love someone enough and they hurt you deeply, it can change you forever” (pages 70–71). Answer Myra’s question for yourself. Did Grandma Margaret change as a result of her love affair with Peter? Did Peter? In what ways?
6. How is Margaret a symbol of American ideals—specifically life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? In what ways is she the antithesis of these principles? Consider her relationship with her family, Jeremiah, Peter, and Emily in your response.
7. Evaluate Franz Dahler’s character. Do you blame him for allowing Peter to leave his family, his home, and his country? Do you think he could have changed the course of Peter’s life if he had stood up to their father? Is he similar to many of the other characters in that he can “never forget that which you regret” (page 166)?
8. What role does World War II play in the novel? Do all of the characters’ suffering and joy happen as a result of the war?
9. On page 184, Peter declares, “From this moment forward, I am no longer a Dahler.” Consider the ways in which troubled parent/child relationships are the sparks that cause the characters to change their lives and their identities—in some cases very literally. Discuss in relation to the moment when Victor tells Emily, “That’s what being a parent is: loving someone so much that they’ll be a part of you forever, no matter what” (page 190).
10. Revisit the scene, beginning on page 306, when Emily goes to her mother’s grave. Do you think she finds the closure she is seeking? In the end, does Emily “find [her] way back to who [she] used to be” (page 307)?
11. A possible theme for the novel emerges on page 329 when Louise asks Peter, “You ain’t gonna hold a grudge, are you?” Which character seeks forgiveness most? You might consider Emily, Victor, Peter, Louise, Franz, Margaret, or Ingrid in your response.
12. Were you surprised when Nick arrived at Emily’s doorstep? Do you think Nick and Emily are fulfilling the love story that Peter and Margaret never got to have?
13. Ultimately, do you think the painting is responsible for changing Emily’s life? Reflect on the changes in her relationship with her father, Nick, Catherine, and herself. Do you think art has the power to transform the way we understand the world? Why or why not?Enhance Your Book Club
1. Peter and Margaret share a passion for the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson—a poet, essayist, and philosopher who defined the nineteenth-century American literary scene. Spend some time with Emerson in your book club meeting, paying particular attention to his famous essay “Self-Reliance.” Why do you think Peter and Margaret were so drawn to Emerson’s philosophy? Does the pair embody Emerson’s famous saying “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” which suggests that we must always think for ourselves? Share with the group your understanding of Emerson’s belief in the individual. Have you faced a moment in your life, like Peter and Margaret, where you chose to “be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else” (page 60)?
2. “I was floored to learn that nearly four hundred thousand Germans had been imprisoned in the United States during the 1940s, but that newspaper coverage of the POW camps was limited, so many Americans didn’t even know about them. Most of the prisoners had been captured in battle or on German U-boats and had been brought to the States to work” (page 65). Were you as shocked as Emily to learn about the POW camps in the United States during World War II? Consider reading a different take on this unusual piece of World War II history in Summer of My German Soldier
by Bette Greene. Compare and contrast this book with When We Meet Again
. What themes do the two share? Did the characters face similar prejudices?
3. The fictional Ralph Gaertner’s paintings are compared to the realist twentieth-century American artist Andrew Wyeth, though Wyeth “painted subjects in a much different kind of landscape, mostly in the northeast region” (page 123) of the United States. With your book club, host an art night. Over appetizers and drinks, preview some Andrew Wyeth paintings (andrewwyeth.com). Do the paintings appear as you might have imagined Gaertner’s? Are they different? How so? Does it seem that Wyeth agrees with Gaertner that “to paint a face was too intimate; it was like baring a person’s soul to the world without their permission” (pages 123–124)? Why or why not?
4. Didn’t get enough Kristin Harmel? Read another book by her with your book club, such as The Sweetness of Forgetting
or The Life Intended.
With your group, come up with a list of themes that seem to interest this author. How do the families in The Sweetness of Forgetting
or The Life Intended
compare with Emily Emerson’s family? Do you agree that love and forgiveness are central to all the novels?