If your book club enjoys taking a trip to the past, then they will probably enjoy one of these novels. And if your club is looking for a few questions to jump-start the meeting, why not check out these Reading Group Guides below?
THE ALICE NETWORK
1. Female friendship is a constant theme throughout The Alice Network. Charlie St. Clair and Eve Gardiner begin as antagonists, whereas Eve and Louise de Bettignies (Lili) are friends from the start. How does each friendship grow and change over the course of events?
2. The young Eve introduced in 1915 is very different from the older Eve seen through Charlie’s eyes in 1947. How and when did you see the young Eve begin to change into her older self? What was the catalyst of those changes?
3. Lili tells Eve “To tell the truth, much of this special work we do is quite boring.” Did the realities of spywork surprise you, compared to the more glamorous version presented by Hollywood? How do you think you would have fared, working for the historical Alice Network?
4. Rene Bordelon is denigrated by his peers as a war profiteer and an informer. He sees himself as a practical businessman, pointing out that he is not to blame making money off the invaders, or for tragedies like Oradours-sur-Glane which happened on German orders. Did you see him as a villain or an opportunist? Do you think he earned his final fate?
5. Eve loves Captain Cameron and hates Rene Bordelon—but her relationship with Rene is longer, darker, and more emotional. How is her hatred for him complicated by intimacy? How does his realization of Eve’s true identity change him? How do you think they continued to think and feel about each other during their thirty years separation, and how did that effect their eventual climax?
6. Finn Kilgore and Captain Cameron are parallels for each other: both Scotsmen and soldiers with war wounds and prison terms in their pasts, acting as support systems for the women they love who go into danger. How are the two men different as well as alike? How does Finn succeed where Cameron fails?
7. Rose’s disappearance provides the story’s driving search. Did her eventual fate surprise you? Had you ever heard of Oradours-sur-Glane? How did Rose’s fate change the goal of the search?
8. Everyone in The Alice Network suffers some form of emotional damage from war: Charlie’s depression after losing her Marine brother to suicide, Eve’s torture-induced nightmares, Finn’s concentration-camp memories and resulting anger issues, Cameron’s guilt over losing his recruits. How do they each cope with their war wounds? How do they help each other heal? How is PTSD handled in Eve’s day as compared to Charlie’s day—and as compared to now?
9. Charlie dreads the stigma of being a “bad girl” pregnant out of wedlock, and Eve fears shame and dismissal as a horizontale if it is learned she slept with a source for information. Discuss the sexual double-standards each woman faced. How have our sexual standards for women changed since 1915 and 1947?
10. Charlie decides to keep her baby, and Eve decides to have an abortion. Why did each woman make the choice she did?
11. Charlie argues that Rene should be brought to legal justice, and Eve argues for vigilante justice. Who do you think is right? How did it affect the ending? How do you think the outcome will bind Eve and Charlie and Finn in future, since they cannot share their adventure with anyone else?
12. “There are two kinds of flowers when it comes to women. The kind that sit safe in a beautiful vase, or the kind that survive in any conditions . . . even in evil.” The theme of the fleurs du mal carries from Lili to Eve—how does Eve pass it on to Charlie? When do you see Charlie becoming a fleur du mal in her own right? How has knowing Eve changed Charlie’s life, and vice versa?
THE LION AND THE ROSE: A NOVEL OF THE BORGIAS
1. The novel opens in the middle of the action, as the Pope’s mistress and her friends are hostages from the French army. Did you come to their story fresh, or did you read The Serpent and the Pearl, which came before it? How did this affect your enjoyment of The Lion and the Rose? Did you have any other preconceptions about the Borgia family from legends, rumors, television, or other books?
2. The dwarf Leonello and the cook Carmelina are quickly introduced as enemies. How do their feelings toward each other change over the course of the novel? Did their relationship change in the ways that you expected, or did it end up surprising you?
3. Sancha (the Tart of Aragon) is roundly denounced for being a harlot, whereas Juan and Cesare, who behave in the same way, are not. Do you think this is fair? Why is Giulia not despised as Sancha is, though she is equally notorious?
4. Leonello’s pursuit of a mysterious killer leads him to a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with Cesare Borgia, and Giulia observes that both Cesare and Leonello enjoy “needling people just to see their reactions.” What are other similarities and differences between the Pope’s son and the dwarf bodyguard? What about Leonello and Cesare’s other bodyguard, Michelotto?
5. Giulia’s affair with her Pope is filled with genuine affection at the beginning of the novel. When do you see her feelings begin to change? Did the change come from inside Giulia, or from Rodrigo’s actions, or both?
6. Kitchen apprentice Bartolomeo is the only character who can match Carmelina’s love of food and skill at cooking. How does the delicious food they make alter the course of events at various points in the novel?
7. The murderer sought by Leonello meets a vicious end. Did he deserve that end, or was there another way to stop him? What about the man acting as his squire, who was killed accidentally?
8. Did you hope that Rodrigo Borgia would reform the Church and the city of Rome after his breakdown and epiphany? Were you pleased or disappointed by the outcome?
9. Reread the conversation in which Leonello leaves Giulia’s household. Did you expect their exchange to play out as it did? Were you as surprised as Giulia was?
10. Carmelina speaks bitterly of the life that nuns lead. In your opinion, did nuns or married women lead more restrictive lives in the Renaissance?
11. Each of the three narrators has a relic or a symbol of power that defines them: Carmelina has a true relic in the withered hand of her patron saint Santa Marta; Giulia has her floor-length hair; Leonello has his knives. What power do these relics really hold for their owners? How do they feel about their respective relics by the end of the novel?
12. All the Borgias change radically over the course of the novel. Did you find their descent believable? Who do you think changed the most radically, and why? What do you think the future for them holds, beyond the end of the novel?
THE SERPENT AND THE PEARL: A NOVEL OF THE BORGIAS
1. Which character most suitably earns the title of Serpent? The Pearl? Why?
2. Carmelina Mangano opens the novel. Already in the opening pages, it is noted that Carmelina possesses a cook’s nose. How does her talent as a cook change her character? Her life?
3. Many characters in the book are based on real people involved with the Borgias. Did you have any preconceptions of the Borgia family that shaped your expectations of the story?
4. How does the relationship between Giulia and Lucrezia grow or change throughout the book? Do you have any sympathy for Vannozza dei Cattanei? Why or why not?
5. At one point, Madonna Adriana explains, “My boy [Orsino] will need help if he’s to get on as he should,” in response to Giulia’s accusation that she is a terrible mother. Do you understand her choices or do you find them inexcusable?
6. Giulia’s mother told her that a woman has three possible fates: “Wife, nun—or whore. And once you’ve chosen, there’s no changing it.” Carmelina disagrees. Discuss the female characters and assign each the label of “wife,” “nun,” or “whore.” Why did you choose what you did? Do you agree with Giulia’s mother or Carmlina? Why?
7. How is Madonna Adriana’s relationship with Rodrigo Borgia (her cousin) similar to Giulia’s with Sandro or Carmelina’s with Marco? How do the three women manage the men who control their lives, when it comes to getting their own way?
8. Once Leonello was named Giulia’s bodyguard, all three narrators had a chance to meet for the first time in Carmelina’s kitchen. What did you suspect would become of them? How did you think they would interact?
9. During Lucrezia’s bridal processional to the Vatican, Leonello reflects on the crowd: “They would be pleased by the pomp, dazzled rather than offended. The Borgias, in the eyes of most of the world including themselves, had been put upon the earth by God to lead sumptuous lives on behalf of the masses. Their pomp was God’s will.” How is this similar to the way our modern culture idolizes celebrities?
10. Leonello is ashamed of himself when he finds cheer in the fact that the fruit vendor, Eleonora, was also staked. Were you happy that this storyline was continued? Did you suspect Cesare?
11. Leonello observes that “the degree to which women kiss and coo, I’ve found, is in direct proportion to the degree in which they dislike each other.” Do you agree? How do Giulia and Carmelina relate differently to other women, from their very different stations in life? How do they relate to each other?
12. Giulia doesn’t walk in her brother’s funeral procession in Capodimonte because, “that wasn’t how things were done here.” Would you prefer Giulia live in the country where she’s vilified or in the city where her relationship with the Pope removes her from judgment? How do these distinctions affect the story?
13. Do you suspect that Rodrigo cares to save Giulia once she’s captured by the French? Why or why not?
14. Giulia reflects on the difference between passion and love, declaring that Rodrigo and Orsino both feel passion for her but not love. Do you agree? Are any of the female characters capable of inspiring love?
MISTRESS OF ROME
1. From the moment we meet Arius we are also introduced to his inner demon. At his core the Barbarian is a noble and kind-hearted soul, while the voice that haunts him is a ruthless killer. How do you think this maniacal monologue ever began within him? How can his son avoid inheriting this same curse?
2. Sold into slavery and torn away from her one true love, Thea also carries with her the guilt and shame associated with the murder of her family. How does the habit of spilling her own blood help her cope with her troubled past? Which other characters participate in similar self-destructive tendencies and why?
3. Thea admits that even after sharing the Emperor’s bed, and spending days on end with him, that she does not truly know Domitian at all. Does any character truly know the Emperor and, if so, why has he given them his confidence?
4. One on-going theme in this book is forbidden relationships. Nessus has a long-standing romantic relationship with Ganymede, an imperial slave. If both of these men are seen as servants in the eyes of Domitian, and it is not uncommon for Roman men to prefer male lovers, why do you think they choose to keep their feelings for one another a secret? What other characters have relationships, either romantic or platonic, that must remain undisclosed?
5. Lepida’s cruelty towards Thea is incomparable. Does Thea ever show her the same level of cruelty? Does either character ever display any sort of mercy towards the other? Discuss the relationship between slave and master and the varying degrees of cruelty in slave/master pairings in this story.
6. The Emperor’s astrologer, Nessus, reads Arius’ palm after one of his great victories. Nessus foresees three fates: “He will die once by fire, once by the sword, and once as an old man.” After “dying” by fire in the dark hall of the Gate of Death, Arius supposedly has a long full life ahead of him. Did he ever die by the sword in this story? Is this referring to the many “deaths” he suffers within the arena? What do you think this means?
7. The Empress, Lady Julia, and Thea all fear and hate Domitian. While we know his reasons for being so intrigued by Thea, what characteristics drew the Emperor to the other two women? How do women in this story empower themselves or each other when faced with incredible obstacles?
8. Lepida’s disgust for Sabina is very clear to everyone from her servants to her own husband. Why do you think she hates her child so much? Why did she give up the chance to transform her daughter into an unconditionally adoring ally? Was Marcus’ influence over their daughter too strong for Lepida to overcome or did she have other reasons?
9. Do you believe Marcus should’ve tried to divorce Lepida? Do you feel his influence in the senate would’ve been enough to expose Lepida? Was there anyone Marcus could have turned to for help in protecting himself and his family from Lepida’s ambitions?
10. The themes of loyalty and betrayal lie at the heart of this story. The most striking example is one family’s motto: “To be a Norbanus is to serve.” Paulinus’ loyalty to the Emperor is understandably strong at the onset, but why does his dedication remain once Domitian’s true self is revealed? Why does he risk his life to save the Emperor? Why does he leave Thea for Lepida? Why do you think he betrays those who love him, yet protects those who would not hesitate to destroy him?
11. Discuss the impact of social class on the citizens of Rome. Aside from family name (Norbanus), deceit (Lepida), and ownership (Thea), what other ways can Romans advance from the level of society they are born into?
12. “Only one lord and god in Rome.” Power is a questionable and ever-shifting force in the narrative. Who do you feel is the most powerful person in Rome and why? A slave with tremendous inner strength? A barbarian with incomparable physical prowess? A ruler with the all-encompassing influence? A priestess with divine certainty? Another character?
13. Paulinus’ hatred of, and infatuation with, Lepida is an addiction. If he longs to be everything his father is, what is the connection he feels for this woman other than physical lust?
14. Lepida regards Thea as nothing more than a whore because of the sexual acts forced upon her in the Pollia home. However, during their lifetime it is Lepida who chose to have multiple
partners while married. What other double standards appear throughout the course of this story? How do men and women on every level of society perpetuate them?
15. After a rather uncomfortable scene with the Emperor and several others, Marcus pleads with Calpurnia to remain betrothed to his son. Throughout both incidents, his concern for her safety is undeniable. Did their relationship grow from this point? Do you believe Marcus chose his son’s bride with an ulterior motive? Why do you think Calpurnia chose to stay?
DAUGHTERS OF ROME
1. In the opening prophecy Nessus has a vision of the future: “Clear as day he saw widowhood for three of the four girls; a fair amount of misery for one and fame for another; a total of eleven husbands and eight children between them—and of course, that one little hand spilling over with blood” (p. 4). Discuss the foreshadowing in this event. Which Cornelia did you think the bloodied hand belonged to? Which girl do you think saw misery and which one saw fame?
2. As the story develops, the relationship between Cornelia and her sister Marcella begins to change. How would you describe their relationship at the beginning of the book? Do you think that they have any unresolved issues? At which point does their relationship begin to change?
3. What are your first impressions of Lollia? At the beginning of the novel she gets into a heated argument with Cornelia because she buys a body slave from the market. But when there is a massive flood in the city, she is giving out money and food to the refugees and thinking: “I might like my parties and pleasures when times are good, but at least I know how to roll up my sleeves when necessary” (p. 133). What do you think this says about her character? Do you think Lollia changes at all throughout the novel? If so, how?
4. The relationship between Lollia and her grandfather is a complicated one. He often uses his granddaughter to acquire a better position in society through her various marriages—depending on who is favorable at the time. How do you think Lollia feels about this? Do you think that this is one of the reasons she bought Thrax, her body slave?
5. After he is released from prison, Marcella has a conversation with Marcus Norbanus, in which he tells Marcella the following: “I’ve always liked you, Marcella—you’re an intelligent woman, after all, and I like intelligent women. But I find I don’t like you anymore, and I don’t precisely know why. Perhaps it’s just my feeling that you’re a schemer” (p. 328). Why do you think he perceives her in this way? Do you think that his perceptions of Marcella are correct?
6. Do you think that it’s possible that Marcella really did influence the decisions of three different Emperors the way that Diana claims? Do you think that Marcella’s actions shaped the events in ancient Rome in any way? What do you think was a coincidence and what was planned by Marcella?
7. Discuss the changes in Cornelia throughout the novel. She begins the year of Four Emperors expecting to be named the wife to the future Emperor of Rome, but ends up widowed and without the security she had become accustomed to. How do you think her husband’s death changed her? Do you think she still would have ended up with Drusus if she had not been widowed?
8. Throughout the book the youngest cousin, Diana, seems to be obsessed with nothing but horses, yet at the end of the novel it becomes apparent that she has been paying much closer attention to her cousins’ activities than anyone thought. What are your observations about Diana? What do you think she picked up on that the other girls overlooked? And why do you think she keeps her perceptions to herself until the end? Uncle Paris creates busts of each of the four Cornelias depicted as goddesses: Cornelia as Vesta, the goddess of hearth and home; Lollia as Ceres, the goddess of the earth and the harvest; Diana as Diana the Huntress, the virgin goddess of the moon and the hunt; and Marcella as Eris, the goddess of discord and chaos. Why do you think each woman is represented this way? When do you think he began creating the statues and what do you think it means?
9. There were many strong men portrayed throughout this boo. From Lollia’s gentle slave, Thrax, to Cornelia’s caring guard Drusus, to Diana’s strong-willed and moody Llyn, and to Marcella’s opinionated and domineering Domitian. Describe their differences and similarities. How do the men in the novel shape each of the women? Do you think that Cornelia, Marcella, Lollia, and Diana would have faced different outcomes if they were not involved with these men?
10. At the end of the novel, Marcella walks through the streets of Rome as the Empress, just as she desired. What do you think her life is like? Do you feel sorry for her or do you think that she got what she deserved? Has there ever been something that you desired in life that—once you acquired it—was not as great as you thought it would be?
LADY OF THE ETERNAL CITY
1. The novel opens in A.D. 118, as Hadrian enters Rome for the first time as its new Emperor. Given Hadrian’s initial popularity, were you surprised when he immediately orders a series of judicial executions? Did you carry any expectations about his character from reading the previous book, “Empress of the Seven Hills”?
2. Rather than seeing her new position as Empress as a chance to enjoy status and power, Sabina is horrified at what she feels will be the curtailment of her freedom. Is her reaction surprising? How valid are her fears? Is her role as Empress similar to the role of a modern political wife?
3. Sabina’s role as Hadrian’s wife presents her with what she feels is a moral obligation to influence her husband towards good impulses rather than bad ones. How realistic is it for a person to try to change or influence her spouse?
4. Hadrian’s overwhelming love for a young man, Antinous, which he expresses openly, was a Roman scandal. How different would public reaction be today if a similar situation was made public (a powerful politician and a same-sex, much younger lover)?
5. The love affair between Hadrian and Antinous could be compared to other tragic lovers of literature and history: Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Iseult, Antony and Cleopatra. Yet their relationship has not attained that epic status. Discuss.
6. Vix is appalled that his son plays what is considered the “woman’s role” in his relationship with Hadrian. How does ancient Roman prejudice against homosexuality differ from the prejudice gays and lesbians face today? How is it the same?
7. Vix is torn between his barbarian/slave roots and his duty to Rome. Did you respect his decision to stay loyal to the Roman army, even as Rome’s war with Judaea eventually destroyed his family?
8. Mirah’s devotion to the Jewish cause creates a rift between Vix and herself which effectively ends their relationship. Did you find it surprising that religion and politics proved the death blow to their marriage, rather than Vix’s complicated feelings for Sabina? Which relationship were you rooting for?
9. Annia enjoys a level of freedom unusual for a patrician Roman girl. To what extent does her running represent her longing for a fuller life than that of an aristocratic heiress?
10. Marcus Aurelius will grow up to pen a famous work of philosophy, The Meditations, which are still widely read today. Can you see signs of a budding philosopher in the young Marcus?
11. The death of Antinous on the Nile remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the ancient world. Were you satisfied with the solution presented here? Discuss how the historical Antinous might have met his end: sacrifice, accident, murder, or suicide.
12. Emperor Hadrian believes that he is not a good man. By the end of the book, Sabina and Vix disagree. Did you believe in Hadrian’s redemption? If so, what truly enabled it: Antinous’s love, Sabina’s advice, or Vix’s reluctant friendship?
In addition to these questions, if your book club chooses any of these novels, Kate will speak with your group via a speakerphone chat! This is your opportunity to ask the author any question you want: which characters in the novel are true to history, will the novel be turned into a movie, how long did it take to get published, and is it really true that the Romans ate live fish.
To schedule a phone chat with Kate and your book club, contact her here.