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Orchid and the Wasp Reader’s Guide

By Caoilinn Hughes

Orchid and the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes


In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal important aspects of the plot of this novel. If you have not finished reading Orchid & the Wasp, we respectfully suggest that you wait before reviewing this guide.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. “It’s our right to be virgins as often as we like, Gael told the girls surrounding her like petals round a pollen packet.” This opening line forms our first impression of Gael and establishes her unsettling balance of confidence and vulnerability, maturity and immaturity. It also alludes to the imagery of the title. How does this line establish the tone of the book? What do you think might be the significance of the title?

2. The events of the novel are situated in, and often closely linked to, moments of cultural strife. Through Gael’s eyes, we experience political unrest in Dublin and the Occupy movement in New York City. Why do you think the author chose to contextualize the novel with these specific settings, and how do they alter the experience of reading the book? Does each change of location represent a different phase in Gael’s life?

3. In Orchid & The Wasp, truth is often concealed through sins of omission. Consider Art’s failure to tell his Aunt Beverly the fate of her paintings and Guthrie’s failure to tell Gael the truth about the twin’s conception. How might the story have developed had the characters been more forthcoming? Can what you don’t know really hurt you?

4. Consider how various pieces of art prompt crucial plot points in Orchid & The Wasp. Gael’s “restaurant outburst,” for instance, is triggered by Louis le Brocquy’s “Figures in Moonlight,” and Guthrie’s paintings are the driving force behind Gael’s money-making scheme. How does art motivate the story? Do the characters shape art and music, or are they shaped by it? Are there pieces of art that have played similarly defining roles in your life?

5. Guthrie’s faith is so strong that he tries to walk on water and is surprised and upset when he falls into the pond instead. “Why couldn’t I make a miracle?” he asks, to which Jarleth replies, “There are no more miracles.” In a family that largely rejects religion, Guthrie alone embraces faith. What does the strength of this conviction reveal about him? What do you think religious belief means in the context of the novel?

6. As a child, Gael is forced to grow up quickly to compensate for her parents’ absences. When Guthrie becomes a father, he is also forced to grow up quickly—and, in a reversal of their roles, Gael seems less mature in comparison. Which character do you think best embodies a truly mature standpoint?

7. Harper’s turbulent relationship with Gael begins when Gael takes over a college class, pretending to be the professor. After they become roommates, their relationship grows increasingly fraught and emotionally charged. How would you describe the power dynamics between them? Would you respond to the situation differently if you were Harper?

8. What did you make of Guthrie’s “auras” and his somatic delusional disorder? Sive says, “It’s better for everyone to treat [the illness] as what Guthrie believes it to be.” According to Gael, Guthrie believes his epilepsy is due to “a mark somewhere deep within him the size of God’s thumbprint” and describes his auras as “a blessing.” What is the significance of the connection between the auras and religion? Do you think Guthrie should be told the truth about his condition?

9. Where Gael is loud and tenacious, her brother Guthrie is more reserved and cautious. Where Gael is distrustful and dishonest, her brother is faithful and honest to a fault. How do their consequent clashes reinforce or challenge their world views? Further, do you think their relationship is a healthy one? What aspects of their relationship resonate with your own experiences of siblinghood?

10. “If you do nothing with what you have, you might as well never have had it,” says Jarleth. How does this lesson shape Gael’s future actions? Does Gael’s relationship to this philosophy change over time, and if so, how? What is your own reaction to Jarleth’s belief—do you agree that talents or money are meaningless without action or use?

11. “The subject himself can’t be the final authority on the question of whether he is free,” says Isaiah Berlin, one of Gael’s favorite philosophers. What is Gael’s idea of freedom? Guthrie’s? Sive’s? In your own view, did any of the characters in Orchid & The Wasp succeed in attaining freedom from the confines of their circumstances, or is freedom ultimately elusive?

12. Consider the three central female figures of the book—Gael, Sive, and Harper. From presiding over an orchestra to captivating a room with an improvised speech, each woman has her own strengths and talents. How do these characters exemplify female strength and independence? Is there a character you most related to?

13. Guthrie accuses Gael of treating him like “a piece of clay,” noting, “Part of me believes that comes from a good place. But it’s also from a selfish place.” Do you believe Gael’s desire for control stems from a good place or a selfish one? Can you empathize with her motivations to exploit her brother’s illness for his financial gain, or are you angered by her choices?

14. As a conductor, Sive listens to pieces of music with intense focus to try to diagnose the central feelings and worries at the heart of a piece of music. If you were to read this book similarly, what would you identify as the central anxieties of this book? What questions does it ask or answer?

15. Were you surprised by the book’s ending? Based on Gael’s evolution over the course of the book, how do you predict her life would unfold if the book continued?

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