READERS GUIDE“Gorgeous. . . . A delicious, delightful, and deeply satisfying tale of domestic choices.”
The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Julia Glass’s national bestseller, The Whole World Over.
IntroductionGreenie Duquette, a Greenwich Village pastry chef and the mother of a young boy, is the force at the heart of this rich novel about the choices we make in love and marriage. When a piece of her coconut cake is served to the governor of New Mexico, he woos her away from the life she knows to become his chef—a change that sets in motion a period of adventure and upheaval not just for Greenie but for so many others around her, including her psychotherapist husband, Alan; her good friend Walter; and Saga, a mysterious woman recovering from a traumatic injury. With The Whole World Over, Julia Glass pays tribute yet again to the extraordinary complexities of love in modern times.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Julia Glass is a master at creating vivid, believable places. Describe the various places you remember from the novel—New York City’s West Village, Santa Fe, the small island in Maine, Uncle Marsden’s house in Connecticut, Marion’s neighborhood in Berkeley. What are the crucial differences between the various settings? How does place influence lifestyle, life choices, and even the temperaments and the personalities of the characters? Where is “home” for Greenie? For Saga? What about Walter?
2. Describe the structure of the novel. Why does Glass divide her novel into three parts with various chapters? How does she note the passage of time over almost two years? Why do you think the seasons and the holidays are so crucial to this story? Much of Three Junes, Glass’s first novel, was narrated in the first person and in the present tense. Here, however, she’s told the story almost entirely in the past tense and in the third person, from alternating points of view. How is the reader affected differently by these choices? And what about the switch, in the final pages of this novel, to the present tense? Why do you think the author made this switch?
3. Why does Greenie take the opportunity to go to New Mexico? Do you think it was a good decision? Was it in character for her to go? Would you have gone if you were Greenie? Would you have returned to New York in the end?
4. How is teenage love portrayed in the novel? Describe Scott and Sonya’s relationship. Do you think it will last? Why do both Alan and Greenie reconnect with their adolescent loves? Is it nostalgia, memory of youth, or is there something more powerful going on? Is it curiosity about the path not taken?
5. The past seeps into the novel through the various characters’ memories. Greenie does occasionally use recipes and she glances through cookbooks, but much of her cooking is done from memory and experimenting. For what else in her life does she rely on her memory? For Saga, who has lost a great deal of her memory, remembering is the key to being normal again. What is Alan’s take on this? How important are stories of our past in defining who we are in the present? Discuss the importance of family stories in this novel, particularly in connection with Saga and Walter.
6. What kind of mother is Greenie to George? Do you think being a mother defines her? Describe the other mothers in the novel—Alan’s depressed mother; the stylish, well-mannered Olivia Duquette; the Lutheran grandmother who raised Walter. How important in the characters’ lives are memories of their mothers? What do you think about the choices made by Joya and Marion—and Stephen—in their quests for parenthood? What happens to Saga when she learns she was pregnant at the time of her accident? How do you think it will affect her life beyond the end of the novel?
7. The two epigraphs to this novel are from a cookbook and a Dr. Seuss book. How do they set up or relate to the themes and tone of the novel? In Greenie’s interactions with her son, who has just learned to read, and then in certain scenes with Saga, Glass also alludes to or quotes from a number of other children’s books. Do you notice ways in which she’s used specific books to add another dimension to the story that she is writing?
8. There are so many intersecting relationships in The Whole World Over. If you like, try making an actual diagram or map of these relationships. Does this reveal connections you did not notice before? Even Fenno, from Glass’s earlier novel, Three Junes, appears and plays an important part in this novel. If you’ve read Three Junes, do you think Fenno has changed or grown from the last novel to this one? Have the other characters changed by the end of this novel?
9. Choosing the right food for the right occasion is an important part of any chef’s job. Food can be used as manipulation—for instance, in the scene where Ray McCrae asks Greenie to prepare a soufflé for the contentious Water Boys, suggesting that a fancier dessert will “placate” them. Discuss how different kinds of food influence the ways in which people relate. Have you ever used food to get something you wanted?
10. The first time Greenie takes Alan to her parents’ summer home in Maine, she quickly jumps into the cold ocean water, urging Alan to “just make a run for it,” joking that this is her personal motto. Alan retorts that his own motto is “Always test the waters” [p. 192]. How do their chosen careers reflect their personalities? Describe their marriage. Why is it falling apart? Do you think it’s salvageable? From what you learn about Greenie’s and Alan’s parents, how do you think those earlier marriages have shaped their own?
11. Alan remarks to his sister that “honesty can do more harm than good” in a marriage at times [p. 105]. Do you agree with him? If so, in what situations?
12. Why do you think Glass chose to make the monumental, historic events of September 11, 2001, so prominent in a novel about intimate emotions and relationships? Talk about the notion of destiny versus individual determination in this novel. To what extent does each of the major characters freely choose his or her own individual fate?
13. What about the theme of betrayal and forgiveness? Notice how many of the characters betray the people they care about, in subtle as well as obvious ways—not just by being unfaithful, as Gordie, Greenie, and Alan all are, but by threatening the confidence and stability of those around them. What’s going on, for instance, when Joya suggests to Alan that she’s told Greenie about Marion? Or when Greenie’s mother speaks unflatteringly about her daughter to Alan? When Michael criticizes his father’s continuing indulgence of Saga? Does Greenie, in some way, betray her own son as well as her husband when she becomes involved with Charlie? And what about the sexual infidelities? Can you empathize with the characters who have strayed from their commitments? Do you think there will be lasting consequences?