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Exile Music Reader’s Guide

By Jennifer Steil

Exile Music by Jennifer Steil


Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. As children, Anneliese and Orly imagine a complex and ever-evolving fantasy world that they inhabit together, along with their bunny family. How does the intensity of their games distract them from the changes happening in their world? How does their play help them digest or adapt to the growing menace around them? Do you remember the games you played as a child? Why do you think our imaginary friends or childhood games shine so brightly in our memories?

2. Before reading Exile Music, did you know that Jewish refugees fled to Bolivia during World War II ? Many Jewish citizens sought refuge in South American countries, yet those experiences aren’t as prominent in our history books as the experiences of refugees who escaped to North America, Scandinavia, or survived hidden in European countries. Why do you think these experiences aren’t as commonly discussed?

3. Many chapters begin with an epigraph that acts that as sort of news flash. Why do you think Steil decided to include these historical headlines? What purpose do they serve in the narrative?

4. Music is, from the beginning of the novel, a means by which Orly understands her world. Her parents’ work as musicians defines how she understands Vienna, and the music of Bolivia—the way her father engages with his students there, her mother continues to keep music out of her life, and Miguel shows her the sounds of his country—shapes the way that Bolivia becomes home. What other elements of Orly’s life give her the sensation of home? What activity or ritual has for you acted as a lens through which you understand your life?

5. In moments of stress or frustration, Orly often takes two seemingly unconnected things—places, people, or experiences—and figures out a path that connects them. How does that act of defining connection help Orly? How does the book itself act as a path connecting two seemingly unconnected places?

6. Jennifer Steil is the wife of an ambassador, and has lived in many different places around the world, including Bolivia. As a mother, in each new place her family moved it was imperative that Steil find a way to establish a steady day-to-day rhythm, and that often meant learning a new language, making new friends, adapting to new foods and ways of shopping, and learning the cadences of daily life in a new place. How does her experience as an outsider making home in a new place influence the way she wrote this book? How do you think the skills she’s learned in her travels helped her in her research for this book?

7. Over the years, Orly’s understanding of her connection to Anneliese transforms. But the transformation of her feelings isn’t the first time that sexuality is explored in Exile Music. How does this story broaden or change our understanding of sexuality in the 1930s? Steil says that she “purposely avoided labelling Orly’s sexuality.” Why do you think she made this choice? What role does Orly’s sexuality—her attractions and her passions—play in Exile Music, and how does it shape her experiences and the way the plot unfolds?

8. Orly’s mother starts a bakery in Bolivia, and returning to the recipes that they loved in Vienna is at first a sign to Orly that her mother has found hope and purpose at last. But her mother’s baking disguises a dark secret. Even before this secret threatens those closest to her, Orly disapproves of her mother’s choices. What do you think? Has her mother earned her revenge? Does revenge ever solve a problem or resolve pain?

9. The Bolivian Andes are the most prominent geographic feature in Orly’s new home, and their presence on the horizon comforts her, amazes her, and gives Steil ample opportunity to describe the beauty of this country. Steil says, “Many of the things that struck me about La Paz are also the things that struck Orly. First, the mountains. Which are spectacularly present every moment of the day and at the end of every street. I couldn’t get over the joy I felt every time I looked at them.” How do the geographical features of where we live shape our emotions? Have you ever felt a deep connection to a geographical feature—the seaside, a lakeshore, a valley, forest, or even a city block? How did that feeling of connection shape your memory or attachment to a place? What do you think the steadiness or omnipresence of the mountains in Bolivia represent to Orly?

10. How did you feel about the end of the book? How would the story have been different if Orly had decided to return to France with Anneliese? Why do you think she didn’t feel that was an option?

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