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Until I Find You: A Novelby John Irving
Reading Group Guide
1. Jack Burnss most vivid childhood memory is the moment of reaching for his mothers hand. Why is this feeling so significant for Jack? Is there a similarly powerful memory from your own childhood that you can recall? Why has it stayed with you?
2. “The trip to the North Sea with his mother had formed Jack Burns” (309). In what ways had the search for his father-which took Jack and Alice from Copenhagens tattoo parlors to Amsterdams red light district-shaped Jacks character? Also, discuss how Jacks perception of the odyssey changes over the course of the novel. If this trip “formed” him, how does the “revision” of the trip later in the novel “un-form” him?
3. Describe Jacks mother, Alice Stronach, and discuss her heartache and human failings. Did you feel sympathy for her? Anger? Both? In her own way, was Alice ever a good mother to Jack? Do you think she would have been a different mother, or woman, had William Burns chosen to stay with her?
4. As a reader, you also may have felt subject to Alices deceptions; are you willing to forgive her? Is Jack?
5. John Irving captures the peculiar, gritty, and fascinating world of tattooing with its eccentric heroes, history, and unique fraternity. What about this subculture surprised you most? Why do you think some people are addicted to being tattooed?
6. Describe the image and significance of the broken heart tattoo on the cover of the novel. Do you think tattoos are for the fierce at heart, or for the sentimental? If you were ever to get a tattoo, what would you choose?
7. In both positive and negative ways, women and girls have a profound impact on Jack Burns. How is the “sea of girls” at St. Hildas transformative for him? Describe Emma Oastler, and her peculiar relationship with Jack. Consider also Miss Wurtz, and Mrs. McQuat-the “Gray Ghost” who was “always the voice of Jacks conscience” (330).
8. As John Irving writes, “In this way, in increments both measurable and not, our childhood is stolen from us-not always in one momentous event but often in a series of small robberies, which add up to the same loss.” How is Jack slowly robbed of his childhood? Discuss Alice, Mrs. Oastler, and Mrs. Machado as “thieves” of Jacks childhood. Do you think it is possible to have an innocent childhood today? How long does childhood last?
9. Why does Jack Burns love performing? After working with Miss Wurtz, why does he come to the conclusion that “Life was not a stage; life was improv” (163)?
10. Who is Jacks “audience of one,” and how does the vision of this sole spectator affect his acting and, more generally, his life? In your own life, who would you choose to envision as your “audience of one”?
11. Discuss the theme of sexuality in the novel, both in its positive and negative forms. How does Jacks abuse haunt his later relationships with Michele and Claudia? Also, why does Jack feel most comfortable portraying women in film? Is Jacks transvestism a way for him to control, or perhaps hide, his sexuality?
12. Consider Jacks reaction to Emmas death. Why cant he cry? Describe Emmas hold on Jack, both in life-at St. Hildas, the Oastler household and the house on Entrada Drive- and in death, with her odd “gift” of the Slush-Pile Reader screenplay. Did Emma ultimately help Jack or hurt him? Do you think her motivations were selfless, or selfish? Finally, why does her death leave Jack feeling as though he “[doesnt] know who he [is]” (431)?
13. As Irving writes, “So much of what you think you remember is a lie” (532). After Alices death, when Jack embarks on his second trip to the North Sea ports, we learn along with him that much of what he remembers about his past is untrue. How did you feel, as a reader, to learn that Jack had been lied to, and that his memories (and our memory, as readers) were false? Discuss your reaction to the “revision” of Jacks life, to the elusive nature of memory, and consider how perspective can change the entire truth of a story.
14. Describe Jacks reunion with his father. Were you surprised by Williams condition? Even though William was absent for many years, how did he manage to be very much involved in his sons life?
15. When does Jack finally stop “acting”? Describe the moment with Heather when he becomes “the real Jack Burns at last” (747). What brings him into himself for the first time? Have you ever had a moment like this, when your life suddenly clicked? When your sense of self became noticeably whole or true, even for an instance?
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