1. The first two chapters introduce J. J. and Ginger in settings where they seem fulfilled and at peace. What does J. J.’s cabin have in common with the farmhouse Ginger rents in Italy? Is there any similarity between Ginger’s relationship with Marco and J. J.’s experience with Julianne, the teacher from Osceola? How does Julianne measure up to Georgia Larkin?
2. Discuss the narrator’s voice in Swan. What traits do you recognize from Frances Mayes’s non fiction and poetry? How did her accomplished writer’s eye serve her in creating a novel?
3. Compare her depiction of small-town Georgia to that of Tuscany. Are there any similarities between the Mason’s family house and Bramasole?
4. Frances told her editor that Swan is “a book of memory, how it cuts and comes again, and of a powerful landscape, which is always at work shaping the people who live on its surface.” What are some of the ways in which memory and landscape define the inhabitants of Swan? Were Swan’s “old days” good ones?
5. Holt’s relationship with Lucy is considered just as taboo as Catherine’s extramarital affair. As time passes, how is this legacy of racism handled in the town of Swan? In what ways do Tessie and Scott reflect their generations?
6. Frances Mayes is renowned for her description of Tuscany’s cuisine. What are some of the most tempting Southern dishes presented in the novel?
7. From Big Jim to Ginger, the novel portrays a variety of traditional and highly non-traditional men and women. Discuss how Swan’s characters compare to the men and women in your life. Do you think that Southern gender roles are different from those found elsewhere in America?
8. Occurring early in the novel, Ginger’s passionate scene with Marco is immediately followed by gruesome events in Magnolia Cemetery. How are attitudes toward sex and death entwined in the town of Swan?
9. Why do Ginger and J. J. have such opposing reactions to their father? How did your impression of Wills change when you learned of his connection to Dachau?
10. Do you suppose that Catherine would have rebuffed Austin’s marriage proposal if she had been born twenty years later? Is her situation reflected in Ginger’s first marriage? How does Catherine’s affair compare with her children’s romances?
11. Who were your primary suspects in Catherine’s murder? How would you have reacted in Sonny’s place?
12. Swan encompasses many genres. It’s a murder mystery, a love story, a family history, a coming-of-age tale, and even somewhat of a travelogue. Which of these aspects most intrigued you?
13. Discuss the theme of archaeology in Swan. What is unearthed besides Catherine’s body? What are some of the ancient references (such as J. J.’s skillful flint knapping) that enrich the novel?
14. Catherine’s love of art, Matisse in particular, is preserved in her own drawings. Discuss the scene in which Ginger reads from Catherine’s illustrated notebooks, at last giving voice to her mother. What are some of the meaningful items you have inherited from a relative?
15. Ginger dreads the journey back to Georgia, but J. J. was never able to move away. Discuss your own feelings toward the town where you grew up. How does this locale affect your sense of self?
16. Catherine left strong evidence of unfinished business, such as the unbaked cookie dough and a skirt still in the sewing machine. What are some of the broader unfinished aspects of her life?
17. Ginger is heir to dollhouses, cookbooks, and church-lady recipes. Where does J. J. fit into his family’s “inheritance of women”? Do you think that Lily’s attachment to her brother negatively affected his attitudes toward women?
18. Discuss the concept of privacy in Swan, from the snoopy postmaster to the telephone operator who reports on her customers’ comings and goings.
19. In what way is J. J. out of his element in San Francisco? In what way is he completely at home there?
20. Explore the novel’s deceptively simple title. Conveying grace and purity, is it an ironic name for the town?