Synopses & Reviews
Over the course of his career, New York Times
bestselling novelist Chris Bohjalian has taken readers on a spectacular array of journeys. Midwives
brought us to an isolated Vermont farmhouse on an icy winter’s night and a home birth gone tragically wrong. The Double Bind
perfectly conjured the Roaring Twenties on Long Island — and a young social worker’s descent into madness. And Skeletons at the Feast
chronicled the last six months of World War Two in Poland and Germany with nail-biting authenticity. As The Washington Post Book World
has noted, Bohjalian writes “the sorts of books people stay awake all night to finish.”
In his fifteenth book, The Sandcastle Girls, he brings us on a very different kind of journey. This spellbinding tale travels between Aleppo, Syria, in 1915 and Bronxville, New York, in 2012 — a sweeping historical love story steeped in the author’s Armenian heritage, making it his most personal novel to date.
When Elizabeth Endicott arrives in Syria, she has a diploma from Mount Holyoke College, a crash course in nursing, and only the most basic grasp of the Armenian language. The First World War is spreading across Europe, and she has volunteered on behalf of the Boston-based Friends of Armenia to deliver food and medical aid to refugees of the Armenian genocide. There, Elizabeth becomes friendly with Armen, a young Armenian engineer who has already lost his wife and infant daughter. When Armen leaves Aleppo to join the British Army in Egypt, he begins to write Elizabeth letters, and comes to realize that he has fallen in love with the wealthy, young American woman who is so different from the wife he lost.Flash forward to the present, where we meet Laura Petrosian, a novelist living in suburban New York. Although her grandparents’ ornate Pelham home was affectionately nicknamed the “Ottoman Annex,” Laura has never really given her Armenian heritage much thought. But when an old friend calls, claiming to have seen a newspaper photo of Laura’s grandmother promoting an exhibit at a Boston museum, Laura embarks on a journey back through her family’s history that reveals love, loss — and a wrenching secret that has been buried for generations.
“A deeply moving story of survival and enduring love.” USA Today
“Bohjalian deftly weaves the many threads of this story back and forth, from past to present, from abuse to humanity, from devastation to redemption....Utterly riveting.” The Washington Post
“Bohjalian — the grandson of Armenian survivors — pours passion, pride, and sadness into his tale of ethnic destruction and endurance.” Entertainment Weekly
“Dead-solid perfect. Bohjalian is a literary novelist unafraid to reference Proust's madeleine and expect readers to get it. But his books are also filled with artfully drawn characters and great, passionate storytelling. The Sandcastle Girls is all that, but different, more powerful.” The Seattle Times
“A searing, tightly woven tale of war and the legacy it leaves behind....A nuanced, sophisticated portrayal of what it means not only to endure, but to insist on hope.” Oprah.com
“It takes a talented novelist to combine fully ripened characters, an engrossing storyline, exquisite prose and set it against a horrific historical backdrop — in this case, the Armenian Genocide — and completely enchant readers. The prolific and captivating Chris Bohjalian has done it all with The Sandcastle Girls.” Associated Press
“Bohjalian succeeds in depicting the horror, without sentimentalizing it....He has fulfilled the duty of anyone seeking to document a genocide — he ensures that we don’t look away.” The Boston Globe
“An unforgettable exposition of the still too-little-known facts of the Armenian genocide and its multigenerational consequences.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Bohjalian powerfully narrates an intricately nuanced romance with a complicated historical event at the forefront. With the centennial of the Armenian genocide fast approaching, this is not to be missed. Simply astounding.” Library Journal (starred review)
“A beautiful, frightening, and unforgettable read.” Publishers Weekly
“So filled is it with the suspense of life and death that The Sandcastle Girls is difficult to categorize. The story is fiction, but it is true. It’s history, but it’s also art.” The Weekly Standard
"A powerful and moving story based on real events seldom discussed. It will leave you reeling." Booklist
When Elizabeth Endicott arrives in Aleppo, Syria, she has a diploma from Mount Holyoke, a crash course in nursing, and only the most basic grasp of the Armenian language. It’s 1915, and Elizabeth has volunteered to help deliver food and medical aid to refugees of the Armenian Genocide during the First World War. There she meets Armen, a young Armenian engineer who has already lost his wife and infant daughter. After leaving Aleppo and traveling into Egypt to join the British Army, he begins to write Elizabeth letters, realizing that he has fallen in love with the wealthy young American.
Years later, their American granddaughter, Laura, embarks on a journey back through her family’s history, uncovering a story of love, loss — and a wrenching secret that has been buried for generations.
About the Author
Chris Bohjalian is the critically acclaimed author of fifteen books, including the New York Times
bestsellers The Double Bind
, The Night Strangers
, and Skeletons at the Feast
. His novel Midwives
was a number one New York Times
bestseller and a selection of Oprah’s Book Club. His work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages, and three of his novels have become movies (Secrets of Eden
, and Past the Bleachers
). He lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter.
Reading Group Guide
1. Though The Sandcastle Girls
is a novel, author Chris Bohjalian (and fictional narrator Laura Petrosian) based their storytelling on meticulous research. What can a novel reveal about history that a memoir or history book cannot? Before reading The Sandcastle Girls
, what did you know about the Armenian genocide? How does this history broaden your understanding of current events in the regions surrounding Armenia?
2. What lies at the heart of Armen and Elizabeth’s attraction to each other, despite their seemingly different backgrounds? What gives their love the strength to transcend distance and danger?
3. The novel includes characters such as Dr. Akcam, Helmut, and Orhan, who take great risks opposing the atrocities committed by their superiors; Bohjalian does not cast the “enemy” as uniformly evil. What do these characters tell us about the process of resistance? What separates them from the others, who become capable of horrific, dehumanizing acts?
4. Discuss the bond between Nevart and Hatoun. What do they demonstrate about the traits, and the trauma, of a survivor? How do they redefine motherhood and childhood?
5. Bohjalian is known for creating inventive, authentic narrators for his novels, ranging from a midwife to a foster child. Why was it important for The Sandcastle Girls to be told primarily from the point of view of a woman? How was your reading affected by the knowledge that the author is a man?
6. In chapter 9, Elizabeth courageously quotes the Qur’an to appeal to the conscience of the Turkish lieutenant. What diplomacy lessons are captured in that moment? For the novel’s characters—from aid workers to Armenians who tried to convert—what is the role of religion?
7. When Laura describes the music of her 1960s youth, her steamy relationship with Berk, her belly-dancing aunt, and other cultural memories, what is she saying about the American experience of immigration and assimilation? Culturally, what did her grandfather sacrifice in order to gain security and prosperity in America?
8. Discuss the various aid workers depicted in the novel. What motivated them to assist in this particular cause? Do Alicia, Sister Irmingard, and Elizabeth achieve similar outcomes despite their different approaches? What overseas populations would you be willing to support so courageously?
9. Does Ryan Martin use his power effectively? How does Elizabeth gain power in a time period and culture that was marked by the oppression of women?
10. The vivid scenes of Gallipoli bring to life the global nature of war over the past century.
As Armen fights alongside Australians, what do we learn about the power and the vulnerabilities of multinational forces? What did it mean for his fellow soldiers to fight for a cause so far removed from their own homelands, and for his own countrymen to rely on the mercy of outsiders?
11. At the end of chapter 19, does Elizabeth make the right decision? How would you have reacted in the wake of a similar tragedy?
12. How do Laura’s discoveries enrich her sense of self? Discuss your own heritage and its impact on your identity. How much do you know about your parents’ and grandparents’ upbringing? What immigration stories are part of your own family’s collective memory?
13. As she tries to explain why so few people are aware of the Armenian genocide, Laura cites the fact that the victims perished in a remote desert. The novel also describes the problem of trying to document the atrocities using the cumbersome photography equipment of the day. Will the Information Age spell the end of such cover-ups? For future generations, will genocide be unimaginable?
14. Which aspects of The Sandcastle Girls remind you of previous Bohjalian novels you have enjoyed?