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The Drowning Tree Reader’s Guide

By Carol Goodman

The Drowning Tree by Carol Goodman


Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Why do you think Goodman chose glass as the medium for Juno’s restoration work and much of the artwork discussed in the novel—the Lady window in particular? How is the metaphor of glass carried through the novel?

2. Juno attributes some of Neil’s artistic brilliance to his mental illness. Do you think that the age-old association between madness and creativity is valid? Why would such a connection exist?

3. When Juno encounters Christine’s lifeless body in the Wicomico, she initially mistakes it for her own reflection. To what extent is Juno’s fascination with Christine a fascination with herself? What are the similarities and differences between the two women?

4. Christine tells Juno that what she fears most is going insane. What part did this fear play in her eventual downfall? Do you think fear alone is enough to drive a healthy person insane?

5. It is said many times that Bea is remarkably mature for her age. Do you think that dealing with difficult circumstances in childhood breeds early maturity? Can you think of specific incidents or situations in your life that forced you to grow up?

6. Juno speculates that despite her criticism and disapproval of Christine, Ruth Webb still loved her daughter. Mothers and daughters have notoriously complex relationships, but do you think that it’s possible for a mother not to love her daughter in some way?

7. While in the Cloisters museum during college, Christine asks Juno why she thinks Dante has to go all the way into hell to find his way again? Why do you think this question so fascinates Christine?

8. So many characters in The Drowning Tree are preoccupied with their search for the truth. Do you think it’s always best to know the truth in every situation? Can you think of instances from your own life when you would have preferred to be left in ignorance?

9. When considering the charmed though restrictive childhood of Gavin Penrose, Juno asks herself, “How can you ever really tell if people are happy?” Are there definitive marks of a “happy” person? Are there any characters in The Drowning Tree whom you would classify as happy people?

10. Juno writes that, in the early days of her relationship with Neil, Christine’s presence steadied the young couple like the third leg of a tripod. Do you think Christine was a necessary presence in Juno and Neil’s relationship? What did she do to strengthen their bond, and what did she do to cripple it?

11. Do you think that Juno’s comparison of her love triangle with Neil and Christine to the relationship between Augustus Penrose and the Barovier sisters is an apt one? What makes the two trios different, and what parallels match up?

12. Almost every family has its own version of the boogeyman who comes to get naughty children. The constant threat in the Webb household was that if you didn’t behave yourself you’d “end up uphill.” What do you think the threats parents use with their children reveal about the parent? Was there a boogeyman in your household?

13. Where, if anywhere, do you think the moral responsibility lies for the death of the boy in Kyle’s Colorado kayaking accident? Have you ever felt responsible for something that wasn’t necessarily your fault?

14. The first chapter of The Drowning Tree begins with the lines “I was late for Christine’s lecture. I almost didn’t go.” In the last pages of the novel, Goodman repeats, “I was late for the lecture. I almost didn’t go.” Why do you think the novel is framed with these lines? How do actions almost not done alter the twists and turns of the plot?

15. While Beatrice is away on a kayaking trip, Juno certainly has a tumultuous few weeks. If you were in Juno’s shoes, how much of the story would you reveal to your teenage daughter?

16. Do you think that there is “love which absolves no one beloved from loving”? Or do you agree with Juno and Falco’s interpretation that once someone is loved they are bound to love another, though not necessarily the person who first admired them?

17. Why do you think Augustus Penrose and Neil Buchwald both preferred to paint their beloveds as characters from mythology, rather than simply paint them as themselves? Would you find such a portrayal of yourself flattering or disempowering?

18. Juno is amazed that Gavin’s assistant, Faye, has a prophylactic mastectomy. It seems to her like a dramatic measure to take for prevention alone. What do you think? Is Faye’s decision admirable, or do you think it was an overreaction on her part?

19. Why did Christine so desperately want to believe that her family was somehow related to the Penroses? Have you ever struggled, as Christine did, to belong to a world so vastly different from your own?

20. Did you think Juno and Neil would eventually get back together? Would The Drowning Tree have had a happy ending, in your opinion, if Neil had survived and they did continue with a romantic relationship?

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