Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Golden Country includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Golden Country, Jennifer Gilmore's masterful and irreverent reinvention of the Jewish-American novel, captures the exuberance of the American dream while exposing its underbelly — disillusionment, greed, and the disaffection bred by success. As Gilmore's charmingly flawed characters witness and shape American history they come to embody America's greatness, as well as its greatest imperfections. Spanning the first half of the twentieth century, Golden Country vividly brings to life the intertwining stories of three immigrants seeking their fortunes — the handsome and ambitious Seymour, a salesman-turned-gangster-turned-Broadway producer; the gentle and pragmatic Joseph, a door-to-door salesman who is driven to invent a cleanser effective enough to wipe away the shame of his brother's mob connections; and the irresistible Frances Gold, who grows up in Brooklyn, stars in Seymour's first show, and marries the man who invents television. Their three families, though inextricably connected for years, are brought together for the first time by the engagement of Seymour's son and Joseph's daughter. David and Miriam's marriage must endure the inheritance not only of their parents' wealth but also the burdens of their past. Epic and comic, poignant and wise, Golden Country introduces readers to an extraordinary new voice in fiction.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1.How does the novel's structure — chapters jumping back and forth in time and alternating between family members — strengthen the plot? What would change if the novel were written in chronological order?
2.There are many references throughout the novel to events marking "the beginning of things." For example, the night Joseph creates Essoil he "could see it then, as clear as the streetlamp outside his window: he was at the start of his life. Everything that had happened to him . . . had made Joseph feel as if his life were beginning just at that moment" (p. 23). Frances recalls her father telling her, "in America, no end in sight. Only zhe beginnings here" (p. 50). Discuss the significance of this recurring idea of new beginnings. How does the idea of starting over carry a variety of meanings for the different generations of all three families?
3.Throughout the novel Joseph remembers his father promising him and Solomon "a golden country," and Frances recalls how "[a]ll the men seemed to walk burdened by that horrible weight of promises made to their children . . . [she] imagined that somehow it was the children who were meant to lift the heaviness" (p. 47). Discuss the complicated relationship between the parents' expectations of their own lives and their children's lives. How do they and their children both carry the burden of creating a better life in a new country? How do Joseph, Esther, Seymour, and Sarah force their own desires onto their children?
4.What is your opinion of Sarah? Is she mentally ill or a product of her background and the time in which she lives? How is she different from all the other characters in the novel? Did you sympathize with her? What does Sarah represent?
5.What is the novel's attitude toward love and marriage? Consider the different pairs: Esther and Joseph, Sarah and Seymour, Frances and Vladimir, Miriam and David and the generations of parents and grandparents before them. Compare and contrast the different relationships? Why do you think these couples were drawn to each other?
6.When Joseph spots Irving Berlin at Miriam's wedding he wonders, "Do lives lived parallel make you look the same? . . . Or do our looks inform our parallel lives" (p. 223)? Discuss the recurring theme of physical appearance. Consider Esther's obsession with Miriam's nose, the way Seymour's good looks help him in the gangster world and the divergent lives of Frances and Pauline. What do looks represent to these characters? Which character seems the most at home in his/her own skin?
7.Describing the gang Seymour and the Terrier belong to, Gilmore writes "Everything was connected, as intertwined as family, as ivy, as roses: punch someone in the gut here, over there, across the river, someone else bends over from the pain" (p. 93). Discuss how this statement is reflected within each of the three families in the novel. Is the nature of family ties altered over generations?
8.Gilmore writes, "Destiny is destiny. Either one stumbles upon it or it is completely elusive" (p. 130). What does she mean by this? Golden Country is full of references and events relating to destiny, from Joseph's discovery of Essoil the night Miriam submerges herself in cleaning solution, to David and Miriam's first meeting at the World's Fair, to the closing of Seymour's first Broadway show after a number of unforeseen incidents. Why does destiny tend to figure so prominently in stories of the immigrant experience? Why is it so important to the characters in this novel?
9.When Joseph dies, all of the members of the three families, even Pauline, are brought together. In what other ways is Joseph the link that joins all of the characters? What does his story represent? Do you consider Joseph the main character, or do you think someone else is? Do you think there is a main character at all?
10.In what ways is Golden Country not only a story of Jewish immigrant life in America, but also a universal story about love and family? To what other novels about immigrant families can you compare Golden Country?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Make Esther's delicious kugel for a book club brunch. Visit http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/recipe_views/views/100318 for the recipe. Browse amazon.com or your local bookstore and check out the large variety of Jewish cookbooks. Host a potluck and have everyone bring a different dish.
2. If you're in New York, walk over the Brooklyn Bridge like Frances and Vladimir did on their wedding night. The lights are breathtaking at night. Learn more about the Brooklyn Bridge here: http://www.mytravelguide.com/attractions/profile-79019305-United_States_New_York_New_York_Brooklyn_Bridge.html and visit the site's links for pictures of other notable New York landmarks.
3. Host a screening of movies set in New York in and around the decades during which Golden Country is set. For example, try 42nd Street or Guys and Dolls for a taste of Broadway, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or another look at growing up in tenement Williamsburg.
4. During the 1959 Thanksgiving scene, Esther and Frances discuss renowned novelist Philip Roth, and argue over his portrayal of the Jewish experience in America. If you've read books by Roth or other prominent Jewish-American writers who have chronicled the same decades as Golden Country — Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud are two — discuss how their portrayals of American Jewish life, especially in and around New York, parallel Gilmore's novel. How have these and other writers influenced her? What is unique about her take on the Jewish immigrant experience?