This reading group guide for The Given World includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Marian Palaia. 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.
In her riveting debut novel, Marian Palaia courageously explores love, loss, and survival, offering a candid and unforgettable look at what it means to be human. Unable to come to terms with the disappearance of her beloved brother in Vietnam, Riley leaves her home in Montana behind and sets out on a wild and uncertain journey to find peace. From San Francisco to Saigon, she mingles with a cast of tragic figures and misfits—people from all walks of life, bound by the unspeakable suffering they have endured and their fierce struggle to recover some of that which they have lost. Spanning more than twenty-five years, the coming-of-age story of one injured but indefatigable young woman explodes into a stunning portrait of a family, a generation, and a world rocked by war—and still haunted by it long after.
1. Why does Riley leave her home in Montana? What informs the choices she makes about where she travels? Does she ultimately find what she is seeking in each place?
2. How do Riley’s parents respond to her departure and her long absence? Consider how the author uses shifts in point of view to reveal this information. Are the reactions of Riley’s parents expected? Surprising?
3. In the first chapter of the book, Riley says: “They say our early memories are really memories of what we think we remember—stories we tell ourselves—and as we grow older, we re-remember, and often get it wrong along the way. I’m willing to believe that, but I still trust some of my memories.” Is Riley a reliable narrator? How can we determine it? What does the novel seem to indicate about the nature of memory? Is memory a benefit or a curse?
4. Many works of literature depict the effects of war on soldiers, but The Given World offers a look at the effects of war on those left behind. Why might the author have chosen to focus on civilian life rather than on the soldiers? How are those civilians affected by the war? What commonalities are there in the effects of the war on the civilians and on the soldiers who have made it home?
5. The novel features a relatively large cast of characters. What common experiences or feelings do they seem to share? What message or messages does the book contain about common experience and what it means to be human?
6. How is redemption treated in the novel? What about faith, hope, forgiveness, reconciliation: do they contribute to redemption?
7. Many of the characters featured in the book are addicts. Discuss the author’s treatment of addiction and recovery.
8. Riley goes by many names within the story. She creates some of the names herself, but is also given various names and nicknames by others. Is the variety of her names related to the theme of identity?
9. Loss is a recurring motif within the novel. What examples of loss occur? Could any have been prevented? How do the characters left behind cope with it? How do they grieve? Do they find meaning or comfort in grieving?
10. The novel exposes various cultural prejudices based on race, gender, and sexual preference. Describe some examples. Do you think such prejudices have waned in the present era?
11. Many of the characters in the novel keep secrets and tell lies. What are some of the lies, and why do the characters choose not to tell the truth? Do any of the characters ultimately come clean? If so, how is the revelation received? What message or messages does the book ultimately offer on the subject of truth?
12. When Riley wanted to know the meaning of what she found in Frank’s books, Frank responded that “most of the time there was no single meaning; a lot depended on who was trying to figure it out, and what they brought with them to the show.” What did he mean? Do you agree with him? If so, what can it teach us about the way we read and interpret literature?
13. At the conclusion of the story, is Riley fulfilled? If not, is she left wanting? What does the conclusion ultimately indicate about her journey? What has she gained and lost as a result of the journey? Would you say her journey was worthwhile?
1. Compare The Given World to other novels you have read about the Vietnam War and postwar living. What do the stories have in common? How are the characters alike? Who are the narrators of the various stories, and what points of view are represented? How does The Given World stand out from or differ from the other works? Would you say that Marian Palaia offers a new view of war and conflict? Which storytelling styles seemed to you the most persuasive?
2. Have you ever left your country of origin and spent significant time in another? If so, did the experience change you? Did it alter your perspective of yourself or your life back home? Consider other examples of characters in literature who undertook a journey. Did they face obstacles? Were they transformed along the way? Did they return home? What is homecoming all about?
3. Use the novel as a starting point to explore the effects of the Vietnam War. How did the conflict affect the soldiers on both sides? What impact did it have on civilians? What effect did it have on the natural landscape of each country? How did it contribute to cultural and industrial changes in each country? How did the war affect the family unit or alter common ideas of love and faith? How have more recent conflicts affected the people and countries engaged in those conflicts? Do the effects differ?
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