Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. What causes the rift in Jenny and Dave’s relationship? What is their fundamental difference that causes their marriage to fail? Before they part ways in China, Jenny wonders if all Dave needs is “some slight indication that I’m losing my way, that I won’t make it without him—and that if I can give him this, not just now but forever, he’ll come back to me” (page 232). Could she have saved her marriage in this way? Should she have?
2. What attracts Jenny to Graham? Graham to Jenny?
3. Do you believe sexuality is a dichotomy or a spectrum? Do you think a person can love—and be physically attracted to—a person of the same sex but not be gay?
4. Amanda Ruth embraced her otherness—her race, her lesbianism— at an age when so many young women try to be like everyone else. Was this courage? Rebellion? How was Amanda Ruth able to stand out so gracefully?
5. Why does Richmond describe the announcements on their boat as “The Voice”? What does it represent?
6. Place is a recurring theme in Dream of the Blue Room. What about the characters’ origins defined them? How can a person’s geographical origins affect his or her story?
7. On page 133, Graham explains his decision to end his life before he is incapacitated by ALS: “Imagine—to choose one’s own time and place of death. To make a conscious decision to leave this earth while you’re still intact, still functioning.” What might you do in Graham’s place? Would you stick it out to the end, alive but not living? Or would you choose the time and place of your own death?
8. On page 159, Jenny explains her love for Dave when she muses that “it is possible to love a person for being sturdy and reliable in a single, impossible moment, for responding with perfect timing and absolute precision to your unspoken needs.” Do you agree with her? Who else in Dream of the Blue Room loves another character for their actions in a single moment? Have you ever experienced this? Is it ever possible to build a lasting relationship on this kind of love?
9. What does Amanda Ruth’s yellow scarf symbolize? Do you agree with Jenny that she betrayed Amanda Ruth by denying that she had a romantic relationship with her? Why or why not? 10. For many years after Amanda Ruth’s murder, Jenny believed that it was the one defining moment of her life, “that other events would never hold for me any real sense of drama. . . . I have lived my entire adult life with a sense that the timing is all off.” Did other defining moments follow? Have you experienced one of these moments yet in your life? Might there be others?
11. After days, almost weeks, of insomnia, why is Jenny finally able to sleep in Yeuyang?
12. The author retains some mystery about Amanda Ruth’s killer for most of the novel. Why? When did you first realize it was her own father?
13. What is it about Jenny that convinced Graham she could help him die? What is it about her that allowed her to identify her cousin’s body? Kill the rat in her neighbor’s bathtub with no emotion? Do you think she still retains these characteristics when the novel closes?
14. Consider the drowned river victims whom the cruise staff refuses to acknowledge, the staged funeral procession, Yuk Ming’s fabricated “Chinese experience.” Jenny calls her visit to China “an amusement park version of the country” (page 234). Why might this “amusement park” sensation be amplified in China? Do you think you have ever had an authentic experience of a foreign place?
15. What is the significance of QiQi the baiji, Jenny’s dream about him, and the baiji’s appearance as she leaves Fengdu? 16. Do you agree with Graham and Jenny that “to be away and adrift, distant and foreign and lost, alone, is to be somehow free” (page 293)?