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Above the Thunderby Renee Manfredi
Reading Group Guide
1. As the novel opens, Anna doubts her own capacity for compassion: “Deep down she suspected that this trait, along with the maternal one, had never been activated in her. She doubted if it was possible to understand someone elses suffering. Even her beloved husband whose pain had become a private geography on which she couldnt trespass” [p. 21]. Is this cynicism or honesty at work in Anna? Do her relationships with Flynn and Jack change her aptitude for compassion and/or her ability to recognize it?
2. Above the Thunder is rich in symbolism, particularly surrounding Annas voyage to self-knowledge. What is the symbolic significance of her collection of antique hair pins? Her cell pathology slides? What does it mean when she randomly buys a collection of books about female hunters? Why does she have a penchant for dropping things? What other symbols does the author weave into Annas story?
3. What complex facets of motherhoodor the desire for itdoes the author explore through the characters of Anna, Greta, Poppy, Leila, and Jane? What distinction does Anna draw between “maternal instinct” and “motherhood” [p. 116]? What different aspects of the concept of fatherhood are represented by Marvin, Mike, Jack, and Stuart?
4. Flynns point of view is introduced abruptly at the end of the fifth chapter. What does the reader glean about Flynn from this short, powerful passage? What foreshadowing does it contain?
5. The AIDS support group brings Anna into contact with Stuart and Jack. Is there more significance to the group than serving the plot? How does Annas involvement with the group affect her?
6. As Jack grapples with the mystery of who has given him the AIDS virus, he muses: “Mysteries and miracles, miracles and destinations, werent that far apart, in his view. The stricken and the blessed both followed the same path, faith the common point of origin. In the end, there was no difference between Bethlehem and the bathhouses” [p. 79]. What does he mean by “destinations” here? What sort of faith has led him to his dilemma?
7. How does the author weave subtle hints about reincarnation into the text to make Flynns prophecies more sinister and suggestive? What is Flynns vision of herself, Marvin, Poppy, and Anna in the next life? What behavior does Anna exhibit that seems to corroborate Flynns prediction about her?
8. Jack does not fear death but rather fears the possibility of continuing in the beyond: “Spirit without body was repugnant, desire no longer limited by the boundary of skin, expanding to fill the universe, love like sound waves going on forever, not stopped by the density of flesh. How could he ever keep track of himself when his margins were infinite?” [p. 198] In what way does this same fear plague Anna, as well as Flynn? Can it be argued that this is, in fact, the theme of the novel? How does each of these three characters handle this fear?
9. During a particularly alarming episode of Flynns irrational behavior, Anna begs the girl to always tell the truth: “You should never hide. Never hide the things that make you who you are” [p. 158]. Yet asking this promise of the child fills Anna with an inexplicable sense of dread. “The truthwhatever Anna meant by it, and she didnt quite know nowwas likely to deliver her granddaughter into the hands of the enemy” [p. 159]. What are the possible meanings of the word “enemy” in this context?
10. What is the significance of the Mahatma Gandhi epigraph, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world”? Which of the novels characters yearn for change, and which ones achieve it?
11. Why does Greta insist that “Poppy had nothing to do with what Flynn did. Shes not responsible”? Is it possible to separate Flynns propensity for depression from her abandonment by her mother? Does Anna find Poppy culpable?
12. What role does the late Hugh play in the way Anna approaches her new life in Maine? How does the memory of him act as a conduit between her and Flynn? What finally allows Anna to let go of Hugh to the extent that she is open to the possibility of romance?
13. Are the adults in the novel too self-absorbed to realistically see how troubled and endangered Flynn is, or are they earnestly trying to allow her the freedom of eccentricity? Why does Anna muse only half-heartedly about Flynns possible need for professional help? Is the consequence of Flynns action an avoidable tragedy or an instance of fate?
14. During a game of “would you rather” with Flynn, Anna chooses to be a fig tree rather than a whale, stating, “I would always prefer to bear fruit” [p. 139]. How can this conviction be reconciled with her apparent distaste for motherhood? Does this moment mark a turning point for Anna, or is she simply accessing her real feelings on the matter?
15. What is the significance of the birch log fire Anna smells the morning of the tragedy?
16. Jack imagines infection with the AIDS virus as a kind of pregnancy, giving him a sense of being rooted, or caught up in a continuum. He envisions “the lineage of all those hed ever loved and his lovers loved ones, through this virus, a kind of terrible, merciless child who gestated over and over” [p. 40]. What does this odd reflection reveal about Jack? Is he a likeable character despite his patent untrustworthiness? How does Jacks character evolve over the course of the novel?
17. What does Anna mean to convey when she tells Marvin, “Mourning is easier than worry. Or any of those emotions you feel for the living” [p. 116]? Has she closed herself off to the possibility of love and relationships? Or is she entering another phase of dealing with them?
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