Readers Guide Questions and Topics for Discussion
1) Jodi Picoult subtly draws the reader into the delicate emotional lives of these characters through altering points of view. In what ways do the different narrators add to your understanding of individual character motivation as well as overall plot? Did you find that there was extra emotional weight in a novel that so effectively pulls the reader into the thoughts, feelings, and philosophies of such an array of characters?
2) Do you think there are unreliable narrators in this story, characters who either consciously or subconsciously misled you as the reader or even themselves? How do you think the story would have been different had Nina narrated it entirely? How would our view of the main characters differ? Do you think it would have been easier or harder to decipher things like plot and/or character motivation?
3) In what ways did the quotes found at the beginning of each section help inform your read? How did the stories, which seem to be told by Nathaniel, do the same?
4) Motherhood is a central theme in this novel; most of Nina's motivation, at least according to her, comes from her desire to keep her son safe, happy, and away from harm. But were there instances when you questioned Nina's reasons for doing things? Is she as selfless as she claims, or are there other forces at work? When ruminating on Nina's crime, Caleb thinks that "this is about Nina." What does he mean by this?
5) Before the rape, it is clear that Nina, although sometimes torn about her decisions, maintains a pretty even 50/50 split regarding her focus on work and her focus on family. She obviously loves her son and would do anything for him, but she keeps her career high on her list of priorities; so much so that when Nathaniel is sick, she ushers him off to school so she can spend the morning at work. Did you find yourself judging Nina for her choices? Do you think she judges herself? Could this have anything to do with her compulsive need to get revenge for Nathaniel? Would you judge her in the same way if she were a man?
6) Quentin Brown is a fascinating character, one who, in some ways, seems to share traits with Nina-at least traits that she had before her life was turned upside down. Discuss Brown's significance in this story. Although he could have been a peripheral character, Picoult really focuses on him, especially in the latter half of the novel, and obviously draws parallels between his character and that of Nina. Why do you think Picoult does this? Does Nina become more self-aware because of her observations of Quentin? What should we make of the fact that Quentin seems to have a breakthrough with his son, at least to some extent, due to Nina's case?
7) Caleb, who in many ways embodies the physical characteristics traditionally assigned men (the wood-chopping mountain man), often acts as a mothering figure in this novel. While Nina haphazardly seeks revenge for her son, Caleb quietly gives Nathaniel support and refuses to pressure the boy, opting instead for a surprising brand of motherly patience and love to get the boy through. What did you make of the fact that Nina takes on the bloodthirsty and angry attitude that one might expect from a father? Even when Caleb kills Father Gwynne, he does so by poisoning him-a mode of killing that is usually associated with women. Do you think Picoult is playing with gender dynamics in this story? Were you surprised when Caleb discloses his secret at the end?
8) Why do you think Nina followed through on her decision to kill the priest? Most mothers want to protect their children from danger, and many feel they could kill for their children if necessary. What, though, is different about Nina, who actually followed through with murdering her son's abuser when 99 percent of mothers don't?
9) Truth is a rather illusive concept in this story. The novel is littered with instances in which characters lie about who they are, what they know, and how they feel when they don't really need to (think about the scenes where Patrick and Caleb lie about what they do to complete strangers for absolutely no reason). Why is there so much dishonesty or withholding of the truth in this story? Is truth completely unattainable? In Nina's case, is it enough that she believes that she is doing the right thing when she lies, tells half-truths, or gives misleading statements, or is there a larger, unerring sense of justice that permeates this story?
10) On page 249, Nina admits, "And I think, not for the first time, that what is immoral is not always wrong." What kind of distinction do you think she is trying to make between morality and justice? Do you agree with her? Were you surprised when Nina slept with Patrick? Did you think it was "wrong"? Is Nina acknowledging the subjective nature of truth here, or is she simply lying to herself to avoid guilt? What do you think Caleb would say?
11) In what ways does the setting work with the story to highlight, call attention to, or make more important the emotional lives of the characters? How central do you consider location to the story itself? Would this have been the same story if it had been set, for instance, in Los Angeles? How does this close-knit community in Maine help to establish the boundaries and inflexible moral world that the characters live in?
12) Near the end of the novel, Nina says, in a conversation with Patrick, "The right thing, is thinking before I act, so that I stop hurting the people I love." Do you think that, by the end of the story, Nina has learned something about herself and the way that she looks at/handles life that will serve her well in the future?
13) While on the stand, Nina says, "The reality, as you know, is that the rules in court are not written to protect children, but to protect defendants." Ideally, in our legal system, everyone is supposed to be protected. Do you agree with Nina that the system as it currently operates protects perpetrators more often than victims? Do you think the legal system should be changed? Has this book altered your opinion? Did you feel that justice was served when Nina, literally, got away with murder?