Reading Group Guide
Janice Galloway, Clara
1. Were you familiar with the real life story of any of these characters? If so, how did you find the novel's treatment of them? If not, were you inspired to learn more about them?
2. What kinds of details are provided in the first scene? As Clara looks at her reflection in the water, how does the author paint a striking and full picture of our heroine? "Touch [the surface] and it breaks. For all that, it's not fragile. Watch and what scatters on the water's surface comes whole again, the same as before." How do images like this shed light on what is to come for Clara?
3. In what ways does the author's writing style -- succinct, controlled prose that evokes startling images -- reflect the world of the novel itself? How does the contained yet beautifully evocative writing help to reveal the nature of Clara's playing?
4. In the early 1800s, the stereotypical crazy man -- a sex-crazed maniac akin to a beast -- is the only version of insanity or mental illness that people recognized. In what ways do these popular conceptions of "madmen" hinder Clara from seeing the extent of her husband's illness? How do you think Robert's life (and therefore Clara's life) might have been different had he been born in modern times? Do you think he would be diagnosed with a mental illness?
5. Robert Schumann was, if not a musical genius, then certainly a prodigious talent in his own right, and yet he was an utter failure as a conductor. How does his experience in front of an orchestra illustrate his character? Does it demonstrate his inability to work with others or a certain degree of selfishness? What does it say about problems he may have had with communication? Do you believe his mental illness was solely to blame for his professional troubles?
6. Why do you think Dr. Müller blamed Clara for her husband's illness? Devoted and tenacious, Clara is the picture of wifely concern and love. Why would anyone hold her responsible for Robert's mental degradation? Is it simply rampant sexism that causes Dr. Müller to attribute Robert's madness to Clara's fame?
7. Clara comes to realize late in the novel that, "Love was not kisses or children or even what was commonly called happiness. It was the protection of what one loved best of all, at whatever cost." Although Clara herself remains true to this lofty ideal until the very end of the novel, no one seems to extend the same courtesy to her. Just as Herr Wieck does everything in his power to denigrate his daughter after she marries Robert, Robert is publicly rude to his wife many times, insulting and attacking her whenever he feels threatened. From whom did Clara learn this idea about love? And why doesn't she expect to be loved in this way? Is it because "survival was her gift" that Clara seems to need no protection?
8. At one point, Clara's mother says of Herr Wieck, "Wieck was a creature made entirely of will: if he chose to be deaf, dumb and blind, then that's what he'd be." But why has Clara's father chosen to be this way? The story of his poor childhood, and his struggle to become a respected musician, is indeed an intriguing and sad one, but does it provide any insight into his motivations as an adult? Did you have feelings of empathy or pity for Herr Wieck at any point? What other characters in this story demonstrate a formidable will? Which ones do not?
9. Discuss the parallels between the characters of Robert and Friedrich. Both men have an immense love for the art of music and for Clara, but what else do these two men share? In what ways does their treatment of Clara -- the emotional manipulation they use -- seem similar? What do you think would have eventually happened to Clara had she not met Robert? Would she have ever broken free of her father?
10. Herr Wieck has created in Clara a seemingly boundless pool of dedication, loyalty, and selfless discipline. And it seems to be these qualities that Clara relies on during the tough times with her husband. Should we then hold Wieck at least partially responsible for the fact that Clara could not stand up to or break free of Robert? Is this a romantic story of staying true to love despite many obstacles, or is this the story of a gifted woman who could not break the cycle of abuse in her life?
11. Music is an incredibly strong presence in this novel. As a young woman, Clara views music as work, discipline, and order, and it is not until later in life, after Robert is sent to the asylum, that we really see Clara using her playing as an emotional release. To what should her early attitudes toward music be attributed? Are they simply a by-product of her strict and stoic upbringing? "That every emotion evoked by music is created through containment is a commonplace." How does the relationship between emotion and musical expression play out in this novel? Does Clara successfully contain the passion that her music evokes? Does Robert?
12. This novel focuses on the lives of gifted individuals and the struggles they encounter in sharing that gift. When Clara is asked about her childhood training, "She says nothing of willingness, engagement; it wouldn't occur. She had a gift; willingness didn't come into it." In what ways does this speak to the responsibilities of genius? Are gifted individuals required to share their talents with the rest of the world? Whose choice is it to make, and who is to say when and if they have done enough?
13. Looking at the arc of Clara's relationship with music, talk about how her progress as a woman is reflected in and or dependent upon the music she creates. In what ways does Robert's attempt to hold her musical progress at bay reflect his effect on her growth as a person? How does his behavior speak to problems in their relationship?
14. It is difficult for modern-day audiences (most of whom use music as a form of lighthearted entertainment) to understand the importance of music during the nineteenth century. Brahms, Schumann, and Mendelssohn were, without a doubt, the musical icons of their generation. Who are their modern-day counterparts? In a general sense, how have attitudes about music and the culture that surrounds music changed since the time of this novel?
15. "[The] truth is painful. The beauty in truth follows its necessary pain." Talk about the nature of truth in this novel. Although the truth may be painful, is it liberating as well? Whose truth is most important in this story and whose truth resonates when the book ends?