Questions and Topics for Discussion
There is something very special about Agnès Morel. A quiet presence in the small French town of Chartres, she can usually be found cleaning the famed medieval cathedral or doing odd jobs for the townspeople. No one knows where she came from or why. Not diffident Abbé Paul, nor lonely Professor Jones, nor even Alain Fleury, whose attention she catches with her tawny eyes. She has transformed all their lives in her own subtle way, yet no one suspects the dark secret Agnès is hiding.
Then an accidental encounter dredges up the specter of her past, and the nasty meddling of town gossips forces Agnès to confront her tragic history and the violent act that haunts it.ABOUT SALLEY VICKERS
Salley Vickers is a former university professor of literature and Jungian psychotherapist. Vickers’s first novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, was a book club favorite and an international bestseller. She lives in London and is currently Royal Literary Fund fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, UK.DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
- The novel alternates between its present day setting in Chartres and Agnès’s past in Rouen. Why do you think the author chose to structure the novel this way?
- Professor Jones wonders at the beginning of the novel if heaven might simply be “the loss of the fear of loss.” What does he mean by this? Would you say that this fear is a driving force behind many of the townspeople’s actions? Are certain characters steered by this fear more than others?
- How would you describe Agnès’s relationships with Abbé Bernard and Professor Jones? Her presence seems to bring them both relief–why is that? Are they simply lonely? Or is Agnès able to provide them something that others cannot?
- In one of her first conversations with Alain, Agnès wonders if perhaps “everyone has a Minotaur hidden in their heart.” What does she mean by this? Do you agree?
- Dr. Deman works very hard to make sure that he is doing right by Agnès. Is his guilt over her hospitalization the only thing that motivates him? Do you think that makes his actions any less commendable?
- Why doesn’t Madame Picot immediately confess after breaking Lulu? What is it that ultimately allows her to?
- Agnès muses to Abbé Paul that perhaps it is best if some mysteries are left unresolved. How does the novel itself reflect this belief? Do you agree?
- Why do you think the author juxtaposes the investigation into the nanny’s stabbing with the inquiry into Max’s injuries? What comparisons do you think she means to make?
- Why is Madame Beck so intent on tarnishing Agnès’s reputation?
- What role do nostalgia and memory play in this novel? Agnès tries to avoid remembering her past, but it is only after she fully recounts her encounter with the nanny to Abbé Paul that she seems to feel at least partially relieved of her burden. What do you make of this? How are the other characters affected by their own memories?
- Agnès cannot read, but it is noted early on that she is skilled with numbers. Alain mentions to her that medieval education was separated into the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the quadrivium (mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy). The trivium was taught as a basis for learning the quadrivium, which was considered essential for the study of theology. Does Agnès’s skill with numbers–especially considering her struggle with reading–in some way associate her with the divine? Are there any other similar instances?
- What does this novel have to say about faith? Consider Abbé Bernard, who confessed to Agnès that he had lost his faith–yet who spends his last days wildly fearful of Satan. Consider also the vision of the virgin that appeared to Agnès, and the “Providence” that brought her to Chartres.
- What does Agnès mean when she tells Abbe Paul that he has been her “mother”? How is motherhood depicted throughout the novel?
- Discuss Agnès and Alain’s relationship. Does having confessed to Abbe Paul free Agnès to be with Alain in some way? Do you believe, as Alain does, that people who believe themselves lucky are? Do you foresee a lucky future for Agnès?