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The Illness Lesson Reader’s Guide

By Clare Beams

The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams

READERS GUIDE

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Why do you think the author chose to begin the story with the red birds, or “trilling hearts”? How did they set the tone for the rest of the novel?

2. Each chapter begins with a quote from the novel-within-a-novel, The Darkening Glass, which represents a cultural touchstone for the characters. Can you think of a literary work that carries similar popularity and relevance in our current time?

3. Caroline observes that her father imagines the students as “a kind of beautiful clay: dense, rich, formless, and waiting for him.” What do you think this says about his intentions as a teacher? Have you ever had a teacher who wielded this kind of influence?

4. Eliza is the students’ ringleader and she is also the first to fall ill. How did your feelings towards Eliza change over the course of the novel? 

5. The “treatment” that Dr. Hawkins administers is based on a real historical treatment for “hysteria.” What do you think his methods say about the 19th century understanding of women’s bodies?

6. How does the atmosphere of the school change after Sophia’s abrupt departure? What effect does being the only adult woman left at Trilling Heart have on Caroline?

7. What did you make of Caroline’s decision at the end of the novel? If you were in her position, do you think you would have made a different one?

 
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