READERS GUIDEThe introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group’s discussion of Susanna Moore’s elegant, haunting new novel, The Life of Objects.
IntroductionThe award-winning novelist Susanna Moore captures the impact of war on individual lives in a rich and moving novel that moves from the prelude to World War II in Germany to the terrible devastation of the war years.
Beatrice Palmer, the only child of shopkeepers in a small Irish village, escapes the dreariness of everyday life by reading about the pleasures and misfortunes of great literary heroines and whiles away time in her parents’ shop perfecting her skill as a lace maker. The appearance of a beautiful countess presents Beatrice with an opportunity greater than anything she could have imagined: impressed with Beatrice’s elegant handiwork, the countess invites Beatrice to accompany her to Berlin to stay with Felix and Dorothea Metzenburg, an aristocratic couple known for their extraordinary collections of rare lace and other precious treasures. When they reach Berlin, however, they find a nation preparing for war. The Nazi government has requisitioned the Metzenburgs’ home, forcing the family to flee to their country estate south of the city. Within months of their arrival, the threat of war has become grim reality, with waves of refugees seeking food and shelter and bearing horrific tales about the murders of Jews. As Allied bombing raids escalate and the brutal Red Army advances into Germany, Beatrice finds herself ineradicably bound to the Metzenburgs and a patchwork, polyglot community struggling to survive forces far beyond their control.
The Life of Objects is the story of a young woman’s journey through the nightmare of war. It is a haunting portrait of sacrifice and suffering, and of the courage, love, and loyalty the most dire of circumstances can sometimes inspire.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. What contributes to Beatrice’s unhappiness and disaffection in Ballycarra? What does her devotion to novels and fairy tales show about the influence literature has on dreams and expectations? In what ways does her reading increase her isolation and estrangement from those around her? How do the heroines Beatrice admires (p. 5) and the specific works she refers to (pp. 21, 45, 47–48) help to create a sense of her character? What else do they add to Moore’s novel?
2. In addition to being her teacher, what role does Mr. Knox play in Beatrice’s life? What is the importance of his interest in bird-watching and making lists? In what ways do Mr. Knox’s habits and behavior anticipate the qualities Felix Metzenburg exhibits?
3. Why does Beatrice adopt the name of Maeve as she embarks on her adventure?
4. “Because her wealth served to isolate her, Frau Metzenburg did not trouble herself with the customary prejudices of her class. Herr Felix . . . was unusual in that neither money nor adoration had ruined him” (p. 40). How do Felix’s and Dorothea’s manners and demeanor differ, and how does this affect Beatrice’s feelings about each of them?
5. What do Inez’s description of Felix’s past and Beatrice’s observations of his daily activities establish about the changes occurring as the Nazis assume power? What hints are there of the injustices and cruelties to come?
6. What does the novel convey about the response of ordinary citizens to the extraordinary events occurring around them? Discuss, for example, Felix’s reaction to the invasion of Poland, the disappearance of his friends in Berlin, and the implementation of anti-Jewish laws; Fraulein Roeder’s “admiration of Hitler’s frequent speeches” (p. 51) and her insistence that “Frau Metzenburg’s great-grandmother had not been a Jew, despite the lies spread by the wicked (p. 54); Herr Elias’s revelation that he is Jewish; and Beatrice’s subsequent conversation with Casper about Jews (p. 53).
7. Beatrice says, “Part of [Dorothea’s] fascination, of course, was her secretiveness. She could not bear to be anticipated, or forestalled, taking great care to conceal a meaningless or innocent gesture” (p. 90). What information does Dorothea (or the author) withhold and why? Do the details about Dorothea’s background and marriage revealed later in the book cast a different light on her behavior and the things she values (pp. 134–38)?
8. Why do Felix and Dorothea remain in Germany despite Inez’s urging that they leave (p. 138)? Does hiding their treasures (and valuables given them by others) and the sheltering of refugees at their home represent a stubborn refusal to face reality, or can these be seen as acts of defiance—or hope?
9. At the Adlon Beatrice observes, “No one was who he appeared to be—it was too dangerous to be yourself, unless you were one of them, and perhaps even then” (p. 104). Does survival in wartime necessitate deception and self-deception? Does such intentional artifice undermine the moral foundations of a society? What effect, if any, does it have on an individual’s sense of self-respect?
10. Like the villagers in the novel, many Germans blamed the Jews for what was wrong in their country and dismissed reports that the Jews were being annihilated. Do you agree with Felix’s reflection that “By the time that we understand what is happening . . . we are already complicit” (p. 113). To what extent are Felix and Dorothea complicit in the madness that has engulfed Europe? Do their generosity and humanitarian efforts as the war progresses and the Red Army wreaks destruction on the countryside mitigate the blame and shame of their failure to act earlier?
11. What do Beatrice’s reports on actual events gathered from German, Swiss, and BBC news broadcasts, as well as the busy network of rumors, reveal about the often-blurry line between journalism and propaganda, fact and speculation? In this context, discuss the American choice to ignore for so long stories about the Reich’s systematic murder of Jews and other “objectionable” people (p.150).
12. How does the discovery of the American soldier in the woods change Beatrice’s sense of purpose and self-worth (pp. 159–75)? In the course of caring for him and listening to his stories, what does she realize about what was missing in her own life?
13. Only hours after she leaves the American, Beatrice is brutally raped by Red Army soldiers (pp. 179–80). Is the juxtaposition of these two incidents significant? In what ways do the encounters, one tender, one horrific, symbolize Beatrice’s coming-of-age?
14. At the end of the war, Beatrice says, she and others were “left with the inexhaustible presence of evil. . . . We had survived, but we were different people” (pp. 198–99). How does the legacy of the war and the new order in Germany shape the trials and the final tragedy Dorothea and Beatrice must deal with? What personal strengths and emotional needs underlie and nurture the intimacy between the two women? What signs are there that both women are ready to move on with their lives?
15. Several vividly drawn secondary characters enhance the intricacy of the portrait presented in The Life of Objects. What roles do Countess Inéz, Kreck, Herr Elias, Caspar, and Fraulein Roeder play in the novel and in Beatrice’s life? How does each character teach her something, or reveal something, that changes her understanding of the world?
16. Moore is a master at creating precise visual images–of clothing, household objects, and especially the rare items in the Metzenburg collections. In what ways do the finely wrought precision and vividness of these descriptions serve as a counterpoint to the dark themes Moore explores? Do they illuminate and explain the novel’s title?
17. How does The Life of Objects differ from other novels you have read about Europe during the Second World War? What effect does Moore’s choice of an uninformed young woman as narrator have on the power and credibility of the novel? In what ways does the book’s focus on a domestic drama deepen your understanding of the qualities, good and bad, that enable people to endure the atrocities of war?