This reading group guide for White Gardenia 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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In this powerful family saga, a young Russian émigré whose family was ousted by the Communist revolution must face impossible circumstances when she is separated from her mother in the midst of postwar China.
Although World War II has come to a bitter end, thirteen-year-old Anya Kozlova and her mother, Alina, soon realize that their family’s trials are far from over. In the riotous aftermath, Alina is abruptly deported to Soviet Russia and young Anya must take shelter in Shanghai with a generous widower and his handsome yet enigmatic protégée. With endless grace and a little grit, Anya manages to build a prosperous new life in the shadows of her patron’s infamous nightclub. However, an astounding betrayal and fresh political turmoil force her to flee once more to the Philippines, and finally to Australia. As Anya finds herself swept across diverse cultures and continents, she is keenly aware that each step in her journey is taking her farther away from the one person she remains determined to find—her mother.
Rich in incident and historical detail, Belinda Alexandra’s White Gardenia
is a compelling and beautifully written tale about yearning, forgiveness, and how our identities are shaped by the people we choose to trust. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. When her father dies, Anya recalls a beautiful memory in which he compares her to a white gardenia. According to him, she is “beautiful and pure” but must be handled “with care because you bruise so easily.” As Anya evolves throughout the novel, how do you think this comparison holds up?
2. When she is separated from her mother, Anya is left with only two remembrances—the jade necklace and the Matrushka doll. What do these two items symbolize to Anya? What do you think it means that one was lost while the other endured?
3. Alina, Boris, and Olga all put their lives on the line in order to give Anya a future. In Shanghai, Sergei does the same, but seems to expect Anya and Dmitri to live a happier version of his tragic past. What do you think of Sergei’s true intentions? Is he a sympathetic character?
4. Anya becomes jaded to the constant violence in the streets at the same time that she is swept up into the exotic world of the Moscow-Shanghai. When and where does she draw the line between fantasy and reality, especially as she quits school, marries Dmitri, and ignores her friends’ pleas to leave the country? What would you have done in her position?
5. In describing his dark past, Dmitri explains to the aristocratic Anya that identity is not just influenced by nationality, but also socioeconomic status. In the end, it seems that Dmitri was unable to shake the destructive habits of his rough upbringing. Do you think he manages to change at all? Anya ultimately forgives him. Would you?
6. In the Philippines, Anya befriends Irina, Ruselina, and Ivan, three White Russians who help restore her faith in humanity. Yet she sets herself apart from them, even rejecting Ivan’s proposal, because she is ashamed of her dark secrets. Is this a universal fear? What advice would you give Anya in these moments?
7. In the purgatory-like refugee camp, Anya and her fellow expatriates endure pirates, the jungle, and a typhoon, but they also must consider their futures. When place becomes uncertain, how do they define “home”? How does that new definition influence Anya’s decision to follow Irina to Australia?
8. On the train to the Australian camp, Anya and Irina encounter a Holocaust survivor who is terrified by a well-meaning soldier. How does past trauma influence the way we experience the present? Discuss the sheer scope of World War II and the effect of the novel in underscoring its damage.
9. When Irina has a particularly difficult time adjusting to Australia, Anya steps up and encourages her to use music to connect with the rest of their camp. Discuss the feelings of isolation that language can engender in diverse communities. Can music operate as an equalizer?
10. Irina and Anya are lucky to have Betty on their side when they move to Sydney, but they still endure serious bouts of discrimination from native Australians, particularly women. Discuss the progress in tolerance that we have made since this period in history. Do we still have far to go? How can we get there faster?
11. When Anya learns that a letter is on the way that will reveal her mother’s fate, she is not sure that the truth will be better than not knowing. Is it better to live with uncertainty, and maintain a glimmer of hope? Or better to risk confronting a painful truth in order to move on?
12. Tang is a consistently threatening presence throughout Anya’s journey. When she learns about the tragic events that led to his vitriolic behavior, she feels compassion but does not excuse his evil deeds. How do you draw the line between empathy and justice? How would you have reacted to this news?
13. After Anya tries to end her own life, she finds herself falling in love with the man who saved it—Ivan. He claims that “understanding is more important than forgetting” the past. Do you agree? Discuss the moments in which Anya confronts her past instead of running away from it.
14. When Betty passes away, Anya wistfully imagines her being reborn in a period particularly well-suited for her—the 1960s. If you could grow up in any other time or place, what would it be and why?
15. When Anya finally travels to Moscow to reconnect with her long-lost mother, they go to see a production of Swan Lake
. What is the significance of the play’s alternate, happy vs. unhappy endings in terms of Anya’s life path? Discuss the “unhappy” endings that led Anya and Alina back to each other, with a beautiful new addition to the Matrushka doll—Lily. Enhance Your Book Club
1. Anya and her friends are cheered by films that remind them that the future could still be bright. Grab some popcorn and watch Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in On the Town
or Marilyn Monroe’s classic The Seven Year Itch
2. When Anya hears that her mother may have traveled to Omsk, she is reminded of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground
. Continue your discussion of the effects of war by diving into this excellent (and first existential) novel.
3. When Anya is exposed to Australia’s very different kinds of flora, she is reminded of Picasso’s famous quote: “You have to train your eye to see things in a fresh way. To see the beauty of the new.” Take a group outing to your local art gallery or museum to try and see the world in a different light.
4. Anya and her family partake in some delicious Russian feasts. Have a Russia-themed cooking night and try your hand at classic dishes like beef stroganov, borscht, or kholodets.