Reading Group Discussion Points
- Who is the narrator of Flesh and Blood? From whose point of view is the story told? At different points in the book, Cunningham switches to Jam's point of view and to Ben's point of view. What is the effect achieved by doing this? What effect does it have on you? Is it successful? If so why, if not, why not?
- Cunningham opens the book with the quote: "Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard.'Stop!' cried the groaning old man at last. 'Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.'" How does this quote relate to the story Cunningham tells in Flesh and Blood?
- Cunningham makes the wise hero/heroine, Cassandra, a transvestite. Why might he have made this choice? What might he be trying to imply about men and women and their roles? Cassandra teaches Mary about being a woman. What might Cunningham be trying to say about femininity? Is it inherent or learned? What do you think femininity means to Cunningham?
- Both Mary and Susan are prized for their beauty. What is the value of their beauty in Flesh and Blood? Does it offer them any power? What is the price they pay for their beauty?
- Cunningham takes us through 40 years of different characters' lives. Are his characters dynamic or do they remain the same? How do Mary, Susan, and Billy grow? Do you feel the characters find what they are seeking? What does each seek, and more importantly, what does each find?
- Throughout Flesh and Blood, Mary is concerned with cleanliness and order. What might Mary's desire to create cleanliness and order represent? What is out of order or dirty in Mary's life? What might Cunningham think one finds or loses in the messiness of life?
- Mary feels her impulse to shoplift "had more to do with cleaning up" than covetousness. What does this mean? What might her desire to clean up say about her secret yearning? Constantine calls Mary a "thief" for shoplifting. In the context of their relationship, why else might Mary be considered a thief?
- Mary takes Valium to help her breathe and to calm her anxiety. "The anger was sourceless — just nerves, she'd tell herself." Why is Mary so angry? What does she want that eludes her? What does Mary get from life and from her marriage with Constantine? Why might "her face stare at him with black emptiness?"Where does her disappointment come from?
- Maintaining a vegetable garden is associated with Constantine. Why might Cunningham have chosen to make him a gardener? What does it say about Constantine and his desires? The garden can be viewed as a metaphor for many situations and themes in the novel. Describe what they might be. What does the garden represent at the beginning of the book? Does this change by the end of the novel? Both Zoe and Constantine share a bond based on the garden. What is similar about their interest in the garden? What is different?
- Constantine is also a builder. Why might Cunningham have chosen to make him a builder? What do houses represent to Constantine? What associations do they have for the other members of the Stassos family? In the beginning, Constantine spies on the people that live in the houses he builds. Why might he do this? For what is he "yearning"? What is he looking for? At the end of the book, he again spies on his houses. At this point is he looking for something different?
- On two occasions Susan "makes out" with her father. Why did Cunningham make this part of his novel? What purpose to the plot does it serve? What drives Susan to do this the first time What is inside of Constantine which allows him to comply? What need are they each trying to fulfill? Why does Susan do this again at the funeral? How do you feel about it?
- Billy's relationship with his father is strained. He and Constantine are always fighting and Constantine asks himself, "How could he fail to adore his son?"What is the tension between Billy and Constantine? Why doesn't Constantine adore his son? What is the main issue over which they clash? What might Cunningham be trying to say about fathers and sons?
- Jamal is always finding things. Has he lost anything? What is he looking for? One time he finds a gull's wing "bleached, hardened, cleaned of its flesh...only bone and feathers."What might it mean that he finds this particular object? What metaphor can you draw about a character who is always finding things?
- What is Cunningham's vision of a successful life? Does any character attain a successful life? Who might come the closest? Does Cunningham have a vision for humanity?
- Cunningham writes about families in Flesh and Blood. What changes occur in the Stassos family as it is portrayed from 1950 to the present? What is unique about Cunningham's vision of the family in 20th-century literature? Do you think he believes that families in general can continue the way they are? Are they destined to change? What is the cost of family, the "flesh and blood?" What are the benefits? What are the rewards of the invented, created family? Does Flesh and Blood leave you with hope for the family?
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