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.
"Bohjalian's powerful newest (after The Night Strangers) depicts the Armenian genocide and one contemporary novelist's quest to uncover her heritage. In 1915, Bostonian Elizabeth Endicott arrives at a compound in Aleppo, Syria, to provide humanitarian aid to Armenian refugees. A fresh-faced nurse just out of college, Elizabeth has learned only rudimentary Armenian, but soon befriends Armen Petrosian, an engineer who lost his wife and daughter during the chaos of the deportations and mass murders. Though Armen departs for Egypt to fight with the British Army in WWI, their relationship blossoms into an epistolary romance. The atrocities of the genocide and the First World War continue, and Bohjalian spares no detail in his gritty descriptions. Nearly a century later, Laura Petrosian is living in the suburbs of New York City when a friend alerts her to a possible photo of her grandmother being used to advertise an exhibit about 'the Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About.' As she explores her past, Laura discovers that what she once considered to be her grandparents' eccentricities their living room was dubbed the 'Ottoman Annex' speak to a rich and tragic history. Though the action occasionally feels far-off, Bohjalian's storytelling makes this a beautiful, frightening, and unforgettable read. Agent: Jane Gelfman, Gelfman Schneider. (July)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Chris Bohjalian is at his very finest in this searing story of love and war. I was mesmerized from page one. Bravo!" Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife
"In his latest novel, master storyteller Chris Bohjalian explores the ways in which our ancestral past informs our contemporary lives — in ways we understand and ways that remain mysteriously out of reach. The Sandcastle Girls is deft, layered, eye-opening, and riveting. I was deeply moved." Wally Lamb
"Bohjalian's powerful novel...depicts the Armenian genocide and one contemporary novelist's quest to uncover her heritage....His storytelling makes this a beautiful, frightening, and unforgettable read." Publishers Weekly
"A powerful and moving story based on real events seldom discussed. It will leave you reeling." Elizabeth Dickie, Booklist
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, Midwives, and Past the Bleachers). He lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter. www.chrisbohjalian.com
Reading Group Guide
A Reading Group Guide
The Sandcastle Girls
By Chris Bohjalian
New York Times bestselling author of Midwives
Doubleday Hardcover ISBN 978-0-385-53479-6
To invite the author for a speakerphone or Skype chat with your reading group, visit his website at http://www.chrisbohjalian.com/reading-group-center.
Critical Acclaim for The Sandcastle Girls:
“Chris Bohjalian is at his very finest in this searing story of love and war. I was mesmerized from page one. Bravo!”—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife
“In his latest novel, master storyteller Chris Bohjalian explores the ways in which our ancestral past informs our contemporary lives—in ways we understand and ways that remain mysteriously out of reach. The Sandcastle Girls is deft, layered, eye-opening, and riveting. I was deeply moved.”—Wally Lamb, author of The Hour I First Believed
“Bohjalian's powerful novel . . . depicts the Armenian genocide and one contemporary novelist's quest to uncover her heritage. . . . His storytelling makes this a beautiful, frightening, and unforgettable read.”—Publishers Weekly
“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.”—Julie Kane, Library Journal (starred)
“An unforgettable exposition of the still too-little-known facts of the Armenian genocide and its multigenerational consequences.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“A powerful and moving story based on real events seldom discussed. It will leave you reeling.” —Elizabeth Dickie, Booklist
Over the years, bestselling novelist Chris Bohjalian has taken readers on a spectacular array of journeys, ranging from the Vermont farmhouse in Midwives, where a homebirth goes tragically wrong on an icy winter’s night, to the precarious world of Poland and Germany at the close of World War II in Skeletons at the Feast. In his fifteenth book, The Sandcastle Girls, Bohjalian takes us to a time and place—Syria, 1915—that left haunting legacies for his Armenian heritage, making this his most personal novel to date.
A sweeping historical love story, The Sandcastle Girls introduces us to Elizabeth Endicott, an adventure-seeking graduate of Mount Holyoke College who travels to Syria just as the Great War has begun to spread across Europe. With only a crash course in nursing, Elizabeth has volunteered on behalf of the Boston-based Friends of Armenia to deliver food and medical aid to refugees of the genocide. She soon befriends a striking Armenian engineer. He is young, but he has already lost his wife and infant daughter to Turkish brutality. When Armen leaves Aleppo to join the British army in Egypt, he and Elizabeth begin a daring correspondence, bridging their very different worlds with words of love and hope.
Interwoven with their tale is the story of Laura Petrosian, a contemporary 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.
An epic story of love and war, The Sandcastle Girls will captivate your reading group. We hope this guide will enrich your discussion.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
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?
About the Author
Chris Bohjalian is the author of more than a dozen books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Night Strangers, Secrets of Eden, Skeletons at the Feast, The Double Bind, Before You Know Kindness, The Law of Similars, and Midwives. He won the New England Book Award in 2002, and his novel Midwives was a selection of Oprah's Book Club. His work has been translated into over 25 languages and twice before become movies (“Secrets of Eden,” “Midwives” and “Past the Bleachers”). He has also written for a wide variety of magazines, including Cosmopolitan, Reader's Digest, and the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, and he has been a Sunday columnist for Gannett's Burlington Free Press since 1992. A graduate of Amherst College, Bohjalian lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter.
Guide written by Amy Clements