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The Titanic Survivors Book Club Reader’s Guide

By Timothy Schaffert

The Titanic Survivors Book Club by Timothy Schaffert


The Titanic Survivors Book Club
By Timothy Schaffert
Reading Group Guide
About This Guide:
This guide is meant to enhance your group’s reading experience of The Titanic Survivors Book Club, Timothy Schaffert’s portrait of a group of Titanic ticketholders who for one reason or another weren’t onboard when it set sail in 1912. Brought together under the auspices of healing and community, the group becomes a kind of family—and a catalyst for a fated love triangle. Set between the tragedies of the Titanic’s sinking and the explosion of World War I two years later, the novel is a celebration of the power of literature to unite us in the worst—and best—of times, for our ability to escape and create realities in storytelling, and to cheat death every time we enter the world of our imaginations.
Questions for Discussion:
1.     What is the effect of the gradual way in which we learn about Yorick’s true Titanic experience? Why does he keep it from the other club members—and from the reader? 
2.     Which does Yorick love more: Haze or books? Consider what he says about the latter: “I love words as much as I do the stories they tell. I can lose myself in the shape of a letter, the shade of the ink. I can get caught up in the twists of an ampersand” (32) and “For the bookish, a book can stir desire like no other set of words, not a message in a bottle, not a love letter, not an inscription carved into your heart-shaped locket. You’ll never fathom the exact passion you feel for the books you adore” (53). What does this foreshadow about the events to come, regarding his role in Zinnia and Haze’s correspondence? For Yorick, what is the difference between loving the act of writing and the books that contain those stories, and the love shared through writing? 
3.     Yorick’s upbringing predisposes him to both theatricality and intense self-awareness. Did you think his name(sake) shaped the events of his life and worldview, or did he attempt to work against that paradigm? Was he more like Yorick or more like Hamlet, staring at his own skull? 
4.     Throughout the novel, there are many recurring images of death by water—from the Titanic to the suicide at the end of The Awakening to the bookseller’s dream on page 73. Do these patterns add up to anything greater in the characters’ lives? What does the ocean offer as a threat and as a balm for this unique group of individuals? 
5.     All the members of the book club experience a shift in their work or way of being after escaping death; for example, Haze cannot photograph people anymore, only empty rooms. Discuss these shifts in terms of what we would understand in modern language as the “trauma” of their cheated death. Have you noticed or experienced similar expressions of trauma in your own life or among the people you know? 
6.     Discuss Yorick’s intentions behind being the scribe for Haze’s letters to Zinnia. Given how things turn out, do you think he achieved his goals and was satisfied by the process of writing as Haze (to Haze)? Consider how his relationship with Haze unfolds compared to the plot of Wuthering Heights, which Yorick idealizes, and what he writes to Zinnia when he sends the book: “Nothing good comes of anything in the story, but its romantic hero is a dark-souled devil you love nonetheless (96). 
7.     Much of Zinnia and Haze’s relationship is seen from a one-sided perspective: Haze’s. What clues do we get in the novel to understand what Zinnia really feels about Haze—and Yorick? Were you surprised by her confession at the end of her and Haze’s relationship? 
8.     How does Alice’s arrival into the group enhance—and complicate—the satisfaction of the adults’ love triangle? What role might she have played in a Shakespearean play? 
9.     Does Yorick value his bookstore, La Librairie Sirène, more for how it entrenches him further in his books or for how it brings him closer to Zinnia and Haze? 
10.  Haze tells Yorick, “When we leave people, it’s not always out of anger” (171). If he doesn’t feel anger after the situation with Zinnia, what does he feel? Why does he leave them? 
11.  Discuss the city of Paris as a kind of character. What about this city allows for the conflation of art, tragedy, and romance to transpire among the characters? Could the book have taken place anywhere else, and if so, what might have happened differently? 
12.  How do the books mentioned in the novel—the book club’s selections as well as Yorick’s favorites in the store and allusions throughout—reflect the experience of the characters, following lines from Oscar Wilde (“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life”) and Hamlet (“The purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature”)? Consider especially how Zinnia describes Haze and Yorick together making a “wonderful man,” as a kind of composite character brought to life through writing (182). 
13.  The beginning of World War I initiates another wave of more drawn-out, long-term tragedy on the heels of the acute, unexpected tragedy of the Titanic—an especially brutal series of events for the characters in the book. How does their response to the war reflect what they’ve learned about grief and suffering in the years since the sinking (and their escape)? Do they revere life (and death) any more or less? 
14.  Yorick, Zinnia, and Haze all take their passions (books, candy-making, photography) to extremes during the war, almost as coping mechanisms for the instability around them. Does this make Haze’s death any more or less tragic? If things had turned out differently between him and Zinnia, do you think he would have gone to the front with such intensity and put his life at risk in that way? 
15.  What did you think of the narrative choice to tell the story of the war primarily through letters (and redacted letters at that) in Part Two of the novel? Did that enhance or limit your understanding of the events that took place during that time? How does cultural memory fill in the gaps of those writings—not your personal memory of World War I, but memories of other wars and depictions of them in art? 
16.  Is Yorick’s job as a censor any different from the way he wrote letters, and conducted his life more generally, before the war? Is he able to express himself fully and truthfully at any point in the novel? 
17.  When the book club resumes, Zinnia describes a word in Japanese “for all the ways the dead live among us. We don’t have words in English, not even in French, for all the ways” (253). Do you know words like this from other languages that lack a direct translation into English? What does this reveal about the power and limits of language to communicate our full experience of life? Do any such words come to mind that would apply to the events, emotions, or people in this novel? 
Suggested Further Reading:
The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Still Life by Sarah Winman
The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose
The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra 
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde 
In Memoriam by Alice Winn
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