Welcome to our very first Style and Shenanigans Book Club discussion!
It’s great to have you and thank you for popping by. Please make yourself comfortable – perhaps pour yourself a favourite beverage and help yourself to a little something delicious to nibble on while you’re at it. Got your book? Fabulous.
Before we start, just a little housekeeping to cover off.
Firstly, I should give a big SPOILER ALERT! We are talking about The Storyteller today and it is spoiler central, so if you haven’t finished reading the book and/or don’t want to hear about the plot, I suggest you click on another post and come back a bit later on.
Also, when we talk about some of the topics and issues raised in this book (religion, The Holocaust, compassion and forgiveness, war and mercy killings/assisted suicide to name a few), it’s inevitable that we will not all necessarily share the same world view or see the people, issues and ideas in this and other books exactly the same way. Nevertheless, let’s keep our discussion pleasant and respectful, as if we were all sitting together in someone’s lounge room. And we would all like to be invited back next month!
Ok, let’s kick things off by talking about the characters.
What did you think of the characters? Who did you empathise with? Love? Loathe? Feel indifferent to?
Personally, I did not find Sage Singer the most endearing of characters and her relationship with the married Adam and her reclusive existence didn’t help (albeit they were somewhat explained/justified by her because of her injuries). I found it difficult to empathise with and relate to her.
I found Josef Weber’s character was initially interesting and compelling but then I was repulsed by him as he revealed his former life in the Nazi regime.
Leo Stein was an affable and likeable enough character but a bit of a stereotype with his dominating mother and sister trying to marry him off. Does anyone actually know someone like him in real life? Do tell.
Of all the characters, the stand out for me was the resilient and courageous Minka whose story was compelling, heart wrenching and terrible. I thought she was exceptional, in all respects. I even liked her vampire story which surprised me.
For a summary of the plot, click here.
Below are some of my thoughts about some parts of the plot. It is not exhaustive of course, so if there is an aspect of the plot I haven’t covered, please feel free to raise it. I’m interested to hear what parts of the story really resonated, interested or impacted you.
I though the plot itself, with its interwoven stories, events and characters were top shelf and typical of Jodi Picoult’s layered, careful and clever writing style.
I found this book immediately engaging and well edited in that regard. However, when Josef Weber began to tell his terrible story, I felt very upset and almost repelled. His description of his war crimes (particularly that horrific scene in which the very young girl and her mother were shot in the pit only for the daughter to survive and be shot again) made me put the book down and walk away for a while. With a very big lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.
When I wasn’t reading this book, I still felt haunted by the stories and faces of mothers being separated from their young children. It was all a bit close to home. I had also just seen the movie “Philomena” too and the trauma of such a separation was fresh in my mind.
It was only when Minka began her story that I was completely captivated and could no longer put the book down. I loved reading about her family life although I was filled with a terrible sense of dread, knowing they were unlikely to survive.
The pages leading to the tragic death of Minka’s nephew Majer and then the subsequent death of her sister Basia were just harrowing. I felt ill reading it but almost relieved that they were no longer living in terror and misery. It also reminded me of the brilliant but totally heart wrenching film Sarah’s Key. Has anyone else seen it? It is one of my favourite films but it is absolutely devastating.
There were positive displays of the human spirit too though. An example that springs to mind is the courage and strength of Minka’s then boss Herr Fassbiner in protecting all the young mothers and their young children in his factory.
In terms of the plot twist, it was during the detailed story of the brothers Reiner and Franz at Auschwitz that I began to suspect that Josef was Franz and not Reiner. This is partly because I know many of Jodi Picoult’s books have a major, “never saw it coming” twist at the end and I was looking for it as I read. Were you surprised by this? Gobsmacked? Still coming to terms with it?
It became increasingly obvious to me that Reiner never had the capacity to see what he did was wrong and would therefore it would be out of character for him to seek forgiveness and “justice” for his actions. Even as a young man, he never had much of a conscience. He was a bully and a brute to his brother. He also clearly did not have the intellect or the interest to become a teacher in his adult life or the capacity to care for an animal.
In contrast, Franz always loved animals (remember that sad story of his pet mouse that Reiner cruelly killed and that Josef’s constant companion was Eva the dog). Franz never had the appetite for violence his brother had and had helped his young Jewish friend Arthur as a young man.
Even in Minka’s descriptions of her work under Franz at Aucshwitz it became clear that he was absorbed in Minka’s story and his conscience was very much at the fore as demonstrated in his interest in her original story of Aleksander and Ania. He was still obviously morally culpable and a brute but it was clear that he had some self awareness or self consciousness about it.
The more I read, I found it increasingly difficult to believe that Reiner had any capacity to feel any shame, guilt or compassion and therefore was waiting for his true identity to be revealed as the book went on.
My favourite line in the book came from Mary, the ex-Nun, who says this to Sage at the end of the book:
“Forgiving isn’t something you do for someone else. It’s something you do for yourself. It’s saying, ‘You’re not important enough to have a stranglehold on me.’ It’s saying, ‘You don’t get to trap me in the past. I am worthy of a future.”
What was your favourite line or most memorable scene?
I don’t know what to think about the ending. I think it was disappointing that Sage effectively murdered Josef and then lied to Leo. Even though her actions could be seen to be justified or understandable, I felt let down by her – almost like she hadn’t really developed her moral character over the course of the book after all even though she had obviously been on a journey of personal development concerning her appearance and self worth. What did you think?
I was also disappointed as her actions potentially invite a discussion about comparing her acts with Franz’s which are not really possible to compare, in my opinion. I thought her claim that she was guilty of “killing an innocent man” was a bit controversial too. Do you think Franz was innocent? Or just the better of the brothers?
I also thought that most reasonable/sane/law abiding citizens people would not have chosen to poison Josef as Sage did. I didn’t think this rang true at all. What did you think?
What did you think of the ending? Did you see it coming? Did you find it satisfying?
In a nutshell
I really couldn’t put this book down for much of it but I can’t say I enjoyed all of it.
It reminded me of the movies “The Piano”, “Schindler’s List” and the epic, brilliant book, “The Street Sweeper by Elliot Pearlman, which I read last summer. Have you seen or read any of them? All tell the terrible, terrible stories of people who survived and died in the Holocaust. As much as I find it difficult to read and see movies about the Holocaust, these stories must be told and and it is important that we read and see them and ensure that history is NEVER repeated.
What did you think of the book? Did you enjoy it? Would you recommend it to someone else?
I’ve asked a few questions during this post too and I’d love to hear your thoughts about any/all of them.