Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Why does Madeline swim the Mississippi at the opening of this novel? Why has she her entire life?
2. Beginning with Cleo’s presence on the wharf just as Madeline is taking her plunge, much of the flow of Spelling Mississippi depends on coincidence and/or fate. What is the difference between the two? Discuss particular moments in the text, and in Cleo and Madeline’s relationship, in which fate or coincidence come into play.
3. Self-imposed exile and or being rejected unwittingly are important themes in this novel. Almost every character — Cleo, Madeline, their parents, for instance — experiences some form of exile or rejection. Discuss how Woodrow uses these themes. What might she be saying about emotional bonds? About following your own path in life?
4. What do you think of Johnny? Canadian readers and reviewers have indicated that he’s one of the most digestible/believable characters. However, U.K. readers seem to have more difficulty with him. Is it possible that a man of fifty years of age could be this boyish, this simple in his outlook? And is he as simple as he seems? His perspective has a strong presence late in the novel. Why do you think that is?
5. Spelling Mississippi has been praised for the detail and impact of its setting, New Orleans. For you, was the city a backdrop to the story or was it something more? Had this novel been set in Ohio, would it have held the same resonance? Have you been to New Orleans? Do you desire to go there, whether because of this novel or separately? Why or why not?
6. If you were to sum up this book to a friend, what kind of novel would you say it is? A love story? A journey of self-discovery? The story of a city or a river? Something else?
7. Woodrow unfolds the histories of her characters throughout this novel, often as stories Cleo and Madeline get each other to share. It is only in the end that the two women, and us readers with them, become aware of what “really” happened in their early lives. Why do you think the author used this technique?
8. Mrs. Ryan admires travellers, yet also says to Cleo that “one of the best ways to get stuck in a place is to end up running a hotel.” What do you think she means? Discuss the importance of travel in this novel, and of getting stuck in places.
9. Why does Cleo leave New Orleans when she does?
10. The author alludes to several works by other authors in her text. What effects do the references to other works have on your reading of this novel? How do you connect the other writers to this book? Do the mentions inspire you to explore their works?
11. Rivers, ferries, ocean liners, Florentine floods, diving, swimming… Water is a constant presence in this novel. Discuss the effect of this element on the story, on the characters, and you as a reader. What does water signify for you?
12. The most difficult relationships in this novel are between mothers and daughters, and between husbands and wives. Do Madeline and Cleo come to terms with their mothers? What do you think Woodrow is saying about motherhood and marriage?
13. Cleo and Madeline, and Johnny as well, spend a lot of their time traipsing from bar to restaurant to bar in search of drinks and food and each other, and whether together or alone. Discuss such activity in the novel. In drinking, are the characters trying to lose something of themselves? Find something? Although the three more often turn to bourbon, can their drunkenness be connected to the recurring references to water in the novel?
14. At the end of the novel, it is clear that Mrs. Ryan’s words about New Orleans are equally suited to the relationship between Cleo and Madeline, as the women certainly haunt each other’s thoughts. What we don’t know is whether they parted too quickly or too slowly — or at just the right time. What do you think? Discuss the novel’s ending and its epilogue.
15. Cleo describes herself as a “poet-chambermaid” and Mrs. Ryan is a writer who has been working on a novel for thirteen years. Discuss the act of writing in terms of the characters in this novel and how they communicate. For instance, can connections be found between Cleo’s travelogue of postcards and journal entries, the cheques sent by Madeline’s mom, the letters Madeline writes but never sends to Cleo, the poem Cleo writes in Florence, the postcard that arrives in Toronto to end this book?
16. How important is the notion of labelling oneself according to sexual preference? In this novel about unexpected love, do you think the characters avoid doing so? Why? What do you think/feel about such labels in real life?
17. Who is your favourite character in this novel? Why?
18. What was your overall impression upon turning the last page? Did you feel you had been taken someplace? Did you feel conscious of not connecting with any parts of the novel, or with some very much?
19. Where will Madeline and Cleo go from here? Imagine your own ending to their story. Will they find happiness together, or part, of necessity, yet again?