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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

The Sorrows of an American

1. The book’s epigraph comes from the eleventh-century Persian poet Rumi: “Don’t turn away. Keep looking at the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.” The author has said that these lines summarize the novel’s journey. What metaphorical role do wounds and healing play over the course of the story, and how can suffering and not turning away lead to enlightenment?

2. The first line of the novel is “My sister called it the year of secrets.” Later, Inga says, “Secrets can define people.” The novel’s plot is generated by several secrets, which are followed by revelations or confessions. Inga talks about the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, whose father had a mysterious secret that changed his son’s life. Later, she stresses Kierkegaard’s preference for the sense of hearing, his argument that the ear “detects human inwardness” better than the eyes. Erik listens carefully to his patients. How do secrets, confessions, and the human voice function in the book?

3. What role do dreams play in the novel? How does the author use dreams to address the characters’ emotional states?

4. Siri Hustvedt has said that her novel is about the past in the present, the ghosts that haunt families from one generation to the next. How doe Erik’s immigrant past and Miranda’s relation to her Jamaican history summon ghosts that remain with them?

5. Miranda, Jeffrey, Lane, and Eggy all express themselves in images. What does Lane hope to communicate through his altered photographs? How do both he and Eglantine use art to express emotions that they are unable to convey in other ways? Miranda tells Erik that she uses her anger when she draws. How do these visual works relate to the novel’s theme offathers and children?

6. Reading Lars’s diaries, Erik tries to understand how forms of suffering are passed from one generation to the next, even when those pains haven’t been talked about. What qualities do you think Erik carries from his father and grandfather? Why is he startled and defensive when his former analyst, Magda, says, “I know how much you identified with your father”?

7. At the end of the book, Siri Hustvedt acknowledges using passages from her father’s memoir for the character Lars Davidsen. Does knowing that these texts tell true stories affect your response to the novel?

8. Eglantine’s presence in Erik’s life triggers memories of his childhood that even his own psychoanalysis did not touch: “Memory offers up its gifts only when jogged by something in the present.” Erik’s mother, Inga, Sonia, Miranda—they all relate memories. Erik’s patient Ms. L. “remembers” her mother hurting her, but Erik doubts her story. Lisa cannot remember the fire that killed her mother and brother. Discuss the complexities of memory in the novel.

9. Erik’s grandfather and father, his niece Sonia, and some of his patients suffer from trauma, what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. What meaning does this illness have in the book?

10. Erik’s patient Ms. W. uses the word reincarnation to describe what has happened to her. At the very end of the book, Erik remembers his last session with Ms. W. And her use of the word. How does the word apply not just to Ms. W. but to Erik and the story as a whole?

11. Discuss the role of fantasy in the novel. Did your feelings about Edie changes as the story unfolds? Why does Max write his letters to a fictional character? How do some of the other characters invent or distort people in their lives? What is Erik’s image of Miranda? What various perceptions do Burton, Rosalie, and Linda have of Inga? In what way do they differ from how Inga sees herself and others? How does Sonia’s view of her father change?

12. What do Erik and Inga finally discover on the trip to meet Lisa? How do the damaged dolls the two women make echo larger themes in the novel?

13. Did your reactions to Lane’s character develop as the narrative advances? Is he dangerous or merely emotionally unstable? What does he want from Miranda? How does Lane perceive Erik?

14. Erik’s view of Miranda deepens as the novel progresses. Discuss how it changes, and how it is different from Erik’s relationship to Laura.

15. Discuss the very last section of the novel. What has happened to Erik? What does he mean when he says, “…it struck me as a moment when the boundary between inside and outside loosens, and there is no loneliness because there is no one to be lonely”? How do these last pages illustrate the idea that the past is in the present?

The Sorrows of an American
by Siri Hustvedt

  • Publication Date: March 3, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 0312428200
  • ISBN-13: 9780312428204