Synopses & Reviews
Robert Hellenga, bestselling author of The Sixteen Pleasures,
once again reveals his profound understanding of the strength and resilience of the human spirit in a compelling and masterful novel.
Alan Woodhull ("Woody"), a classics professor at a small Midwestern college, finds himself convinced that life has taught him all the lessons he has to learn: After the tragic death of his beloved oldest daughter during a terrorist bombing in Italy seven years ago, his wife has left him and his two remaining daughters have grown up and moved away. Yet his decision to attend the trial of the terrorists and to return to the scene of the tragedy marks the beginning of a new life and the awakening of a new love.
The Boston Sunday Globe Sprawling, complex, and multifaceted...stimulating and inspiring....This is unapologetically a novel of ideas.
Entertainment Weekly Autumnal prose, a playful intellectual curiosity, and a decent, disillusioned, all-embracing tenderness.
Carol Field San Jose Mercury News There are so many fascinating stories in this astonishing book, so many characters who touch the heart, that here's my advice: Give in to the irresistible urge to keep turning the pages the first time you read The Fall of a Sparrow. Then read it again.
San Jose Mercury News
There are so many fascinating stories in this astonishing book, so many characters who touch the heart, that here's my advice: Give in to the irresistible urge to keep turning the pages the first time you read The Fall of a Sparrow. Then read it again.
Los Angeles Times The highest possible praise for a novel may be that it forced you to engage it, to argue, to confront it as you would a challenging but sometimes misguided lover. Robert Hellenga's The Fall of a Sparrow is such a novel.
Jane Hamilton author of The Book of Ruth Here's the new Robert Hellenga novel, as richly detailed and absorbing as The Sixteen Pleasures. You know what you need to do: Boil the tea water, get into bed, tell your dear family to go away for a few days, and begin the journey.
Rebecca Radner San Francisco Chronicle Book Review Irresistible....A compendium of delights, overflowing with insight and passion. The funny parts are absurdly hilarious, the painful ones moving and perceptive.
Frances Stead Sellers The Washington Post Book World Once in a while, when reality is too painful to bear, fiction can help us to explore the fragility of our human condition. The Fall of a Sparrow is such a book. With compassion and humor, it conveys a sense of certainty and ultimate faith that only the finest writing can achieve.
David Willis McCullough The New York Times Book Review Hellenga has a gift for nicely pointed satire and a rich, almost lavish sense of place.
Frances Stead Stellers The Washington Post The Fall of a Sparrow conveys a sense of certainty and ultimate truth that only the finest writing can achieve. It is an extraordinary novel.
Kathleen Jacobs Redbook A richly layered novel...in spite of the novel's seriousness and its keenly felt observations about loss and mourning, there are also wonderful moments filled with humor and charm.
About the Author
received his B.A. from the University of Michigan and studied at Queen's University in Belfast and the University of North Carolina before completing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University. He is a professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and the author of the bestselling novel The Sixteen Pleasures.
Table of Contents
The Mountain of Lights
The Ring of Gyges
House for Sale
Mr. Jelly Roll Baker
La Vita Nuova
Children of the Sun
A Dark Cimmerian Land
My Love Is Carpet
In Another Country
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide
- One of the most significant changes in Woody is his transformation from a routine-oriented man who avoids change into a political activist whose primary purpose is to bring about change. Compare this transformation with that of Hannah. Discuss how two people who appear to have similar goals and values can choose such radically different paths after being touched by tragedy.
- In addition to the world of Homer and other ancient writers, Woody deeply connects with the emotional lyrics found in blues music. What do these two markedly different art forms have in common? Discuss why Woody is so fascinated with each one. Can the blues offer him something that the classics cannot, and vice versa?
- At virtually every important moment in his life, Woody discusses ancient history and classic literature. Is he looking for history to shed light on these events, to somehow guide him? Is he attempting to divert attention away from the situation at hand? Does he discuss academia because it is one of the few subjects he feels secure about?
- In one way, Woody's renewed interest in playing the guitar symbolizes the beginning of a new chapter in his life. But one of the main reasons that this music gives him comfort is because it reminds him of the past. Is Woody truly moving on? Discuss other events that mark new phases in Woody's life.
- Why does Woody admit only to Turi that he is afraid of the bats in his attic? Explore the possible meanings of the scene where Turi helps Woody hold the bat in his hands before letting it fly away. Why does Sara choose bats as the subject of her very first independent exhibit at the science museum when she has been afraid of them all her life? Is Sara beginning to conquer her own fears?
- Is Woody selfish or hypocritical for having air affair with Turi? Did the affair begin simply because Turi was so aggressive, or was there a more tangible connection between Woody's affairs with a mother and a daughter? How do you feel about the fact that everyone (Hannah, Allison, Alireza) forgives Woody for having affairs with both women? Does he deserve their forgiveness?
- When discussing the play Oedipus with Allison, Woody is fascinated with the notion of the "terror of coincidence." Explore the role of coincidence and fate in The Fall of a Sparrow. Is Woody truly "terrorized" by coincidence, the fact that everything in life can't be planned or reasoned out?
- Early in the novel, Woody reflects on Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych. He points out how Ivan only transcends his average existence when he faces death. How does this notion mirror the events of Woody's life? Does he identify with Ivan? In the end, has the death of Cookie empowered him to change his life in positive ways?
- Why do food and cooking play such large roles in the life of the Woodhull family? Is Woody trying to use food to "nourish" his soul because he is not being fulfilled in other ways? Discuss the role of food as a character in itself.
- Discuss the point-of-view changes in The Fall of a Sparrow. Which point of view did you find more revealing? Why is Sara's narrative first-person, while the sections devoted to Woody are not? Did you ever wish to hear a first-person narrative from someone else, perhaps from Cookie or Hannah?
- Woody's moment of truth occurs when he forgives Angela Strappafelci. This scene is mirrored by the one where Alireza holds Woody's life in his hands (in the helicopter) but ultimately forgives him for having affairs with both his wife and daughter. Discuss the emotional growth of these two men. Do they have more in common than they realize?
- As a native, Gabriella can teach Woody new things about Italy, and Woody is now willing to play the part of the student rather than the teacher. Discuss the meaning of this momentous step. Does Woody's acceptance of this new role reflect his feelings for Gabriella, or is he simply ready to let someone else lead the way?
- Were the arguments between Hannah and Woody regarding Cookie's tombstone really a joint denial of their daughter's death? Discuss the meaning and suitability of the final inscription.
- Do you agree with Sara's assessment at the end of the novel that it is actually she, not Woody, who has failed to truly deal with Cookie's death? Or did Sara and Woody simply deal with the tragedy differently? Do you think Sara really understands the path that Woody chooses in the end, or does she simply accept it?
- The title of this book comes from a line in Shakespeare's Hamlet: "There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow." What does this line mean in relation to the novel? Is Woody himself a Hamlet-esque figure, one whose indecisiveness and passivity routinely dictate the course of his life? Is this a character flaw he changes by the end of the novel?
- One of Robert Hellenga's strengths as a writer is his ability to wholly transport readers to a distant land and culture. Did reading The Fall of a Sparrow make you want to explore Italy?