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The Unfolding Reader’s Guide

By A.M. Homes

The Unfolding by A.M. Homes


Reading Group Questions
1.      “This can’t happen here” is a shocked refrain that threads through The Unfolding, the catalyst of the Big Guy’s personal and political revolutions, and in many ways, it is what makes up the spine of the book itself. It’s also a phrase that echoes through our society today, no matter your political beliefs. It implies that there are things allowed and not—and that someone has the power to decide[LB1]  the difference. How does Homes explore the right to power throughout her novel?

2.      Similarly implied through that refrain is a sense of moral goodness—a sense of what is “right.” How does Homes explore the moral value of power?

3.      On page 113, the Big Guy says, “Whether or not I care about Joe is irrelevant.…We need to harness the power of Joe.…And if Joe doesn’t know the difference between number one and number two, that’s fine—we just have to tell him what to think.…Because Joe is the one who is going to get the work done. This isn’t about money; it’s about power.”

His coconspirator, Eisner, replies, “Don’t say power, say freedom.”

How are power, money, and freedom entwined in the book? [LB2] Can they be separated? Can “power” be substituted by “freedom” the way Eisner demands? How is this complicated by the references to class distinction in the Big Guy’s speech?

4.      Homes never names her main character, leaving him to be “the Big Guy” from the first page through to the end. What impression did this give you of his character? What is the Big Guy ultimately a symbol of?

5.      On page 87, Meghan meditates on motherhood and womanhood in a presentation about horseback riding before her class, sharing her “experience growing up as an only child with a mother who is somewhat formal. I admire my mother enormously but she is not cuddly. Riding is how we spend time together and it is where I have seen her demonstrate both physical strength and intellectual fortitude, skills that she has passed on to me. I have memories of my mother’s eyes on me…the sense that I was pleasing her, seeking her approval, not a male gaze.…”

Think about how, in a way, Meghan’s descriptions of the types of skills she inherited from her mother are traditionally masculine. What does this speech suggest about what it means to be a woman? Does this meaning shift as Charlotte and Meghan’s character’s shift in the novel? Would you call Charlotte and Meghan feminists?

6.      The lack of “cuddliness” Meghan perceives as an inherent characteristic of Charlotte is complicated by a truth about her family she later discovers. In that context, do you read this speech differently? How does your view of their relationship change?

7.      Amidst this same presentation, Meghan breaks down, saying, “It seems if one wants to ride astride, to be powerful and independent, one has to leave things behind.”

How does this idea affect Meghan’s arc throughout the novel? Do you think Meghan is right?

8.      Consider innocence in this context[LB3] . Is the loss of innocence inevitable on a quest for truth? What roles do Meghan’s parents play when it comes to both maintaining her innocence and lifting that veil? What roles do you think parents should play in this situation?

9.      At the end of page 76, Meghan’s headmistress ponders, “Does knowing empower or inhibit?” What do you think? Do you think it is possible for this to be all-or-nothing, or are there shades of grey?

How is this idea further complicated depending on whose hands the decision is placed in? Whose hands should it be in?

10.   What role does alcohol play in the novel? What other addictions or dependencies might it symbolize? Consider the convention of conservative men the Big Guy hosts in his home, Meghan attending an AA/NA meeting, and Charlotte’s consumption and eventual return to a sober house.

11.   Homes wrote The Unfolding over the course of six years, while the United States became increasingly divided and embroiled in fiery political discourse, and—eerily—was incepted before the January 6 uprising. How does that context shift your understanding of this novel?

12.   The Unfolding is primarily a book of dialogue, both figuratively and literally. When it comes to craft, how does dialogue—as compared to prose—work to convey character in the novel? What does the novel gain from this emphasis on conversation, particularly when it comes to realism? Did you find the dialogue authentic?

13.   The characters of The Unfolding are decidedly—and intentionally—unlikeable. What do you think Homes’s purpose was in making them thus? Did anyone incite your sympathies, despite their apparent unlikability?

14.   Early in the novel, the Big Guy defines decency by saying, “You have to touch people; you have to look them in the eye and listen to what they have to tell you.…You don’t like it but you have to listen.” How does this definition of decency play out through the characters’ actions? By the end, is the Big Guy a decent human? Who in the novel, if anyone, would you say is “decent” per this definition?

15.   For such serious topics—family, freedom, and country—The Unfolding is often an unexpectedly funny book. What purpose does humor serve in the novel?

16.   On page 298, Charlotte says, “I have to go back to my cage” when referencing her sober house, an interesting phrase to use for the confinement she has chosen herself. Why do you think Charlotte calls her sober house a cage? Why does Meghan associate “cage” with safety? What other kinds of cages are present in the novel, and what privileges—or constraints—do you think they offer?

17.   In many ways, The Unfolding is a meditation on heritage, both when it comes to what we inherit from our country and its history, and what we pass on within our families. The Big Guy, his wife, and his daughter all struggle to understand what family means when the legacy they inherited and sought to pass on involves such tension and so many secrets. How do you find your way back to each other when faced with such gaps to bridge?

18.   Consider freedom in conjunction with these sets of inheritances. How do the ties that bind us affect our agency? How can you truly find freedom—and what does it ultimately mean to be free?
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