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The Center of Things


The Center of Things Cover



Reading Group Guide

“Every story is a love story.”–Nora Mars, Evil Love, (1962)

Nora Mars–glamour girl, star of stage and screen, B-movie goddess–has slowly aged out of mainstream popularity and quickly slipped into a coma. Known as much for her astonishing looks, her five husbands, and her way with words (“I’m all for love at first sight. It saves a lot of time”) as for her movie career, Nora Mars has been a tabloid’s dream diva.

Marie Brown, the heroine of Jenny McPhee’s debut novel The Center of Things, is everything that Nora is not: too tall, too plain, too unmarried, and always too early. But she also happens to be Nora’s number-one fan and knows enough to use the star’s untimely near-death to advance her own career at the Gotham City Star by insisting on writing her obit. Along the way she meets the charismatic Rex Mars, Nora Mars’s husband number-three, and struggles between reportorial integrity and plain old lust.
But Marie also has a secret life: She spends every free moment at the library, pursuing her fascination with physics. Here she meets the strange, intriguing Marco Trentadue, a “freelance intellectual” who bears a striking resemblance to Peter Lorre. While Marie is drawn more and more to Rex, she gradually finds Marco to be the stranger attractor.

Interweaving vignettes from Marie’s past, movie lore and lines, and metaphorical physics, Jenny McPhee limns the randomness of everyday life, the conflicting pulls of libido and intellect, and the choices–conscious or not–that shape the search for true love.

From the Hardcover edition.

1. What personality traits make Marie an unusual or distinctive
protagonist? For example, Marco identifies her "chronic need
to anticipate." In what ways does this quality manifest itself in
the course of the novel? Do you consider it a strength, a flaw,
or both? What other characteristics does Marie identify about
herself, or do other characters observe in her (such as her passions
for old movies and new science)? Do you personally identify
with any aspects of her personality? Do you find her a
likable heroine? Why or why not?

2) Marie says that her job writing for the tabloids is akin to assembling
a jigsaw puzzle--a process that involves "taking a
few facts, a little filler, and scrambling them around until they
fit together into some sort of recognizable whole." In what
ways does this process reflect the form of The Center of
? What seemingly random pieces--bits of texts, storylines,
genres, quotations, theories, and themes--does the author
include? How do they come together to form a cohesive
whole? As a specific example, discuss the use of the various
quotations by Nora Mars scattered throughout the novel.
What do they contribute to the overall narrative? Do they
serve to illustrate specific ideas raised in the context of the
plot, or do they act as ironic commentaries on the action?

3) Marie also says that the most challenging part of her job is "trying
to understand people's motivations for what they did . . . because
just when you thought you'd figured someone out, you'd
see another possibility for what was driving that person." How
is the difficulty of assessing what motivates other people explored
in the novel? How does the author show specific characters
being motivated by a range of desires, ones that at times
might even be considered contradictory? What mistakes in
judgment does Marie make in figuring out people's motivations,
including her own? How does this relate to the revelations
she uncovers in her investigation of Nora Mars and her

4) Why does Marie worship Nora Mars? Consider the qualities
that Marie admires in Nora in contrast to how she describes
herself, particularly in her "litany of self-hatred." What does
Marie's veneration of Nora say about the personalities we
choose to idolize and the reasons we do so, and about the ways
their example can influence us for better and for worse?
5) Discuss Marie's feelings toward Marco. How does she perceive
him at the start of the novel, and how does that differ from her
description of him at the end? At what point do you, as a
reader, figure out that Marie is attracted to him, and that he is
attracted to her? How does the author make this attraction
clear to readers, even though it is not necessarily clear to
Marie herself ? What factors do you think prevent Marie from
figuring out her feelings for Marco earlier on?

6) Discuss Marie's relationship with her brother, Michael. In
what ways does it parallel the relationship--and conflict--between
Nora Mars and Maud? In investigating the Mars sisters,
what does Marie come to realize about her relationship with
Michael? Why, if her relationship with Michael was so impor-
tant to her, did she risk destroying it by pursuing her interest
in Michael's lover? You might also discuss the continuing influence
her father has on Marie. Why does she say her struggle
to finish her quantum paper is "on some primal level, a
distraction--not from her betrayal and loss of her brother but
from having caused her father to leave"?

7) Much of the novel consists of Marie and Marco's discussions
about science, particularly about physics and quantum mechanics.
What do these discussions generally contribute to the narrative?
What is it like for you, as a reader, to encounter these
ideas in the midst of a work of fiction? What does the author do
to make these scientific theories accessible to readers who might
not be familiar with them? Did you find any of the scientific
principles discussed particularly interesting or intriguing?
8) Marie is particularly interested in making analogies between
science and everyday life, and she and Marco frequently attempt
to connect scientific theories they are discussing with
specific events unfolding in their lives. For example, they discuss
Bell's Theorem, which states that "any two particles once
in contact will become 'entangled' and continue to influence
each other, no matter how far apart they may subsequently
move . . ." How does that description apply to characters in the
novel and to their relationships to one another? Also, consider
the idea that "a particle can have potential existences in many
places at once until we look at it--only when it is measured by
an observer does it become 'real' or fixed in one reality." What
events in the novel illustrate the idea that "reality depends
upon who is looking"?

9) Consider the novel's chapter titles: Time, Truth, Beauty,
Jealousy, Money, Science, Love, Reality, Death, Life, Qualia,
Fate. What do these headings have in common? How does
each chapter investigate or reflect the particular theme or idea
that provides it with its title? You also might consider the ordering
of the chapters. What does it mean, for example, that
Death precedes Life? Or that the novel begins with Time but
gives the final word to Fate?

10) In discussing Einstein's theory of relativity, Marie says that
"time, like language and meaning, was relative to its context."
In what sense is time relative? How does this idea connect with
the novel's investigation of such concepts as Beauty, Truth, Reality,
and Death? Consider, for example, Marie's distinctions between
"absolute truth," "tabloid truth," and "relative truth,"
and between "pure beauty based on an aesthetic hierarchy recognizable
to all humans; and relational beauty . . . based on one's
own perceptions." How does the novel illustrate the ways in
which things commonly taken to have a single, objective meaning
are actually open to varying, subjective points of view?

11) Marco's "theory of mutual good looks" states that "absent mitigating
factors like money and power, people inevitably couple
with their physical equals, their beauty equivalents . . ." Based
on your own observations of couples you know or have seen, is
Marco correct? Or do you agree with Marie, that there are
always mitigating factors?

12) Midway through the novel, in a central chapter, Marie and
Marco discuss scientific theories that place us "at the center of
things" versus those that place us at the periphery of the universe
or claim that there is no center at all. Why do you think
the author chooses to make this term the title of the novel?
How does the issue of being "at the center" or "centered" relate
to events in the novel, particularly to Marie's experiences
and change of heart?

13) Nora Mars is famous for playing the femme fatale role in old
noir movies. (If you want to check out classic examples of noir
films, take a look at The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity.)
Many of these noir films take the form of detective stories, in
which the protagonist is somehow set up or undone by a
femme fatale. These movies also often feature dark, tortured
sexual relations, with stunning revelations, surprise twists, and
multiple double-crosses. In what ways does The Center of
borrow and play with conventions of noir films? Why?
What other genres does the novel invoke? Is it, like Michael's
screenplay, an example of a "sci-fi noir comedy"?

14) Marie, in attempting to account for what makes tabloid journalism
and voyeurism such a "turn on," argues that "we look
into other people's lives as a way of looking into our own," and
we also "look into other people's lives in order to avoid looking
into our own." Do you agree with her arguments? How are
both of these motivations seen in Marie's investigation of
Nora Mars? What do these say about why so many people are
fascinated with celebrity gossip and scandal?

15) In science, there are two opposing views that Marie and Marco
debate: one is that the universe is ruled by chaos and random
events; the other is that everything is predetermined by set
physical laws. In philosophy, this debate might be seen as corresponding
to a difference between coincidence and fate. How
does the novel portray the difference between coincidence and
fate? Which one seems to be the preeminent force that determines
the direction of the characters' lives? Is it coincidence or
fate, for example, that brings Marie and Michael back together--
and leads Marie to Marco?

Product Details

McPhee, Jenny
Random House
New York
Motion picture actors and actresses
Quantum Theory
New York
Women journalists
Edition Number:
1st paperback ed.
Edition Description:
1st Ballantine books ed.
Series Volume:
RG 322
Publication Date:
October 1, 2002
8.40x5.48x.65 in. .47 lbs.

Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

The Center of Things
0 stars - 0 reviews
$ In Stock
Product details 272 pages Ballantine Books - English 9780345447654 Reviews:
"Review" by , "A jolly read — McPhee's characters are wonderfully weird....Romance mingles with mind-swelling musings on superclusters and string theory....The end equation is an elegant inquiry into the randomness of love and the glory of fate." —
"Synopsis" by , A JOLLY READ-McPhee's characters are wonderfully weird. . . . Romance mingles with mind-swelling musings on superclusters and string theory. . . . The end equation is an elegant inquiry into the randomness of love and the glory of fate.

-Entertainment Weekly

As a reporter for New York's last evening tabloid, Marie Brown writes about the bizarre and the scandalous. But her life is hardly either. She's too single, too tall, and too pragmatic for anything other than her routine-which consists of going to work and going to the library, where she indulges in her one passion, physics, and in conversations with Marco Trentadue, the strange freelance intellectual in blue pajamas. Then the trajectory of her life takes an unexpected turn.

Nora Mars-glamour girl, star of stage and screen-is near death. Marie has worshipped Nora since she was in high school. Naturally she will write Nora's obit. When Marie meets Nora's charismatic third ex-husband for an interview, she struggles between a reporter's integrity and plain old lust. What Marie uncovers is a story of a starlet who took the exigencies of fame into her own hands-and the inspiration to do the same with her own love life.

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