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Valley of the Moon Reader’s Guide

By Melanie Gideon

Valley of the Moon by Melanie Gideon


A Conversation with Melanie Gideon

Random House Reader’s Circle: Where did the inspiration for Valley of the Moon come from?
Melanie Gideon: The main inspiration was the movie Brigadoon, which is about a village in the Scottish Highlands that is stuck in time (none of its inhabitants can ever leave). Every evening when the villagers go to bed, a hundred years go by in the outside world but only one night passes for them. Gene Kelly stumbles upon Brigadoon. He falls in love with Cyd Charisse and has an impossible decision to make—-either leave Brigadoon by nightfall, never to see his beloved again, or stay with her and be trapped for a century, at which point everybody in his life will be long gone.
RHRC: Each of your previous books has a very distinct tone and subject matter. How do you see Valley of the Moon as similar to or different from those previous books?
MG: Although Valley of the Moon might seem like a departure from my previous books, both The Slippery Year and Wife 22 had the theme of time set squarely in their sights. Valley of the Moon is, for me, a meditation on time: how it constricts us, traps us, and also ultimately frees us.
RHRC: What is your writing process like and how has it changed from book to book?
MG: My writing process is the same for all my books. I’m a serious plotter and outliner. I never start a book until I have a comprehensive outline, and I usually know the ending of the book as well. After I’ve outlined, I just dive in, and I don’t stop writing until I have a first draft.
RHRC: Greengage is such a special place—-was it inspired by a real community in your life?
MG: Greengage is an amalgamation of the farm in South County, Rhode Island, where my family lived when I was a child and the camp I attended from the ages of twelve to eighteen. The farm was a magical place where I developed a profound connection to the natural world. Camp was a yearly plunge into communal living, a way of life I still long for today.
RHRC: Time travel is clearly a subject that has fascinated the popular imagination for a long time. Why do you think the fantasy of traveling through time is so appealing?
MG: Because who wouldn’t want to step through a portal into another time, if only for a few hours? To sneak in and experience the Middle Ages, ancient Greece, or the Gilded Age and then pop right back out into your own time? Of course, in all the best time–travel books there’s always a caveat, a price to be paid for that experience. You can’t time–travel without being fundamentally changed or fundamentally changing your environment. That’s part of the thrill and the heartbreak of the fantasy.
RHRC: What are some of your favorite books or movies that deal with the theme of time?
MG: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis—-not a true time–travel book, but a book that plays with time. Time and Again, by Jack Finney, in which the protagonist lives for months in a perfect replica of a nineteenth–century apartment in New York City, convincing himself through self–hypnosis that it’s 1882. Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler, in which a woman in 1976 finds herself hurled back through time to a pre–-Civil War plantation. And finally The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, unique in that it’s told from the point of view of both the time traveler and the wife he leaves behind.
RHRC: Lux finds a place that seems to feel like home in a time very distinct from her own. Do you personally ever wish you could have lived in another time? When would it be?
MG: The late 1800s, just like Lux, and the place would be a community similar to Greengage. I suppose I created the world for Lux that I wanted most to time–travel to.
RHRC: Was there any special research you had to do to bring the 1900s and 1970s to life so vividly?
MG: For the early 1900s, one of my best and most inspirational sources was Jack London’s novel The Valley of the Moon, which was published in 1913. I also read books on farming methods from that time period, as well as guides to Victorian life. One indispensable treasure trove was the American Decades series, comprehensive tomes addressing everything from world events, to the arts, to fashion, to medicine and health. For the 1970s, I looked partly to my own memories and sense of that time, and for a more cultural perspective on 1960s to 1980s San Francisco, David Talbot’s Season of the Witch.
RHRC: What do you hope your readers take away from this novel?
MG: I hope first and foremost that they are entertained, and I hope that they’re moved. Valley of the Moon is a coming–of–age story. It’s about loss and redemption, about families, about the unbreakable bonds between parents and children, and about the bittersweet nature of the passage of time.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Greengage is designed after Joseph’s idea of an ideal society. What would your Greengage look like?

2. Discuss the development of Lux’s character throughout the novel. How does she change as a result of knowing Joseph and visiting Greengage?

3. Lux sometimes inadvertently disappoints the people she is closest to—-her relationship with Dash disappoints her father, for example, and Benno is hurt by her disappearance for a year. Do you think hurting others is an unavoidable cost of trying to be true to yourself? Would you have behaved differently in either of these situations?

4. Discuss the theme of belonging in the novel. What does it mean to belong, both in terms of physical space and in terms of relationships?

5. What does Lapis Lake represent for Lux? Why do you think she has trouble slipping into “lake time” on her last visit?

6. Lux tells Benno that “sometimes fear is the thing that makes you feel most alive.” Do you agree or disagree? What are some risks the characters take that pay off in the end?

7. Discuss the meaning of time throughout the book. How does it both constrain and liberate the different characters?

8. Compare and contrast the different parent–child relationships in the book. How do you think Lux’s relationship with her dad shapes her relationship with her son?

9. Imagine the novel told from Benno’s perspective. How would that change the story? What do you think Joseph and Greengage mean to him?

10. An early title idea for the book was The Flower Clock. What do you think the significance of Martha’s clock is, and how does it represent some of the themes of the story?

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