Synopses & Reviews
Acclaimed author Anne Roiphe evokes the sights and sounds of 1880s Alexandria, Egypt, a bustling center of trade and travel. From teeming docks to overflowing market stalls, from grand homes to grimy narrow alleyways, cholera microbes rise and bob in streams of water and tiny droplets, clinging to moisture as man clings to air.
With a keen mind and dedication to his work, young Louis Thuillier has impressed his mentor—famed scientist Louis Pasteur—enough to be sent to Alexandria as one-third of the French mission searching for the source of the cholera that is terrorizing the city. Along with the other members of the French mission—scientists Emile Roux and Edmond Nocard and their enterprising servant Marcus—Louis longs to find the cure, bringing glory to himself and to France. Este Malina is the lovely daughter of a respected Jewish doctor, whose family has lived in Alexandria for hundreds of years. A life of comfort has made Este a romantic, and she hopes to marry a man with the heart of a poet. Neither expects to find a soul mate in the other, but when Este begins to assist at the French missions lab, a deep bond forms. Este, though, is engaged to another, and Louis is not Jewish—her family would never allow them to marry.
In spite of their many differences, the lovers desire grows and their fantasies threaten to distract them from their work. In Alexandria, the disease rages on, as mysterious as it was a thousand years before. Political intrigue threatens to separate Este and Louis permanently. Their love, as fragile as the glass slides they use in the lab, is in danger before it has had a chance to thrive.
With An Imperfect Lens, rich with the sights and scents of a different era, Anne Roiphe once again demonstrates the storytelling power for which she has long been hailed.
From the Hardcover edition.
Twenty-seven-year-old Louis Thuillier, a protege of Louis Pasteur arrives in 1880s Alexandria, Egypt, as part of a French expedition searching for the source of the cholera epidemic raging through the city, and falls in love with Este Malina, the daughter of a respected Jewish doctor, but their growing love is threatened by the epidemic, intrigue, and political unrest. Reprint. 10,000 first printing.
About the Author
Anne Roiphe is the author of eight novels, including Secrets of the City
, and nonfiction work, including the National Book Award nominee Fruitful
. She lives in New York City.
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
1. Discuss Estes relationship to her physical appearance. Why does she seem to derive comfort from seeing her own face in the mirror? What is reassuring to her about seeing her reflection? Do you notice this preoccupation change during the course of the book?
2. Discuss Estes relationship to her physical appearance. Why does she seem to derive comfort from seeing her own face in the mirror? What is reassuring to her about seeing her reflection? Do you notice this preoccupation change during the course of the book?
3. Dr. Malina from time to time reflects on empirical experience as a somewhat unreliable guide-for instance, when he realizes that Este will not protest her engagement to Albert, despite what he expects (“only” because of “experience”). However, it doesnt seem that Este has given him cause to expect otherwise. What experience is he referring to? Do you think he is in touch with who his daughter really is?
4. Marcus seems to become unreliable quickly in Alexandria, his loyalty and value as an assistant questionable at best. Why do you think Pasteur thought highly enough of him to insist that he accompany the mission? Do you think Marcus behaved differently in Paris? Why or why not?
5. Why does Ahmed swindle Albert even as he acknowledges the value of having a bank employee in his debt? Do you think this is a deliberate decision, or the result of greed overruling judgment?
6. Why do Marcus and Eric find friendship with each other so quickly? Do you think their business partnership will be a success? Why or why not?
7. Eric Fortman has been employed as an overseer for the transport of Scotch, an inspector for an Alexandrian importer, and a spy for the British authorities-and doesnt show a particular talent for any of the above. Still, he clearly thinks of himself as a clever salesman and an asset to his employers. How does he justify this high opinion of himself? Do you think it is warranted?
8. What do you think of Estes friend Phoebe? Do you think she deliberately misguides Este toward marrying Albert, or is she innocently optimistic and simply foolish in her judgment? Why do you think she disappears from the story after Este and Alberts engagement is broken off?
9. Discuss the characters relationship with material things-from the loss of cargo at the beginning of the book, to the servants decisions to leave or take the Malinas treasures, to Estes final packing priorities at her Alexandria home. How does each characters relationship to worldly goods help define him or her?
10. How do you think Este and Louiss story would have ended had he remained healthy and joined her on the Romulus? Would Dr. Malina have accepted him under the familys new circumstances?
11. The cholera microbe is referred to numerous times as “amoral.” Why does the author choose to use and repeat this word? What is the role of morality in the book in general?
12. Do you think the story has a moral? If so, how would you describe it?
13. Discuss Pasteurs role in the story. How important is he as a character, or figurehead, or even a kind of stand-in deity for the French scientists? What does his distant presence in the book add to the story, if anything?