Reading Group Guide
"I expected to find the provenance of the Titian. I never expected to find myself."
On her deathbed, Mischa Fontaine's French mother, Anouk, reveals a momentous secret to her son. For more than three decades she has been in possession of an uncatalogued Titian painting known as The Gypsy Madonna, a priceless work that she is donating to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in their adopted home of New York City.
Anouk's revelation sends Mischa on a journey into the past. Shadowed by memory, he recalls his childhood in a war-torn village in Bordeaux, the disappearance of his German father, the townspeople whose hatred of him and his mother escalated into a violent encounter that rendered him mute, and the sprawling château where Anouk worked as a hotel maid. He also remembers Coyote Magellan, an enigmatic American guest at the château, who fell in love with Anouk and freed Mischa from his silence. The three journeyed to Coyote's home in America, where Anouk and Mischa began an enchanted new life...until the day Coyote mysteriously vanished.
Hoping to determine the provenance of The Gypsy Madonna, Mischa returns to Bordeaux in search of answers. Here he uncovers his mother's closely guarded secrets, learns precious details about the two fathers who abandoned him, and rediscovers the one person who can free him from a cynical and lonely life.
QUESTIONS & TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. In the Prologue, Mischa reveals that he is angry with his mother for never having told him about her Titian. Why does Anouk not share this secret-as well as several other important aspects about her past-with Mischa, especially in light of their close relationship? Does Mischa eventually come to understand what drove his mother to keep these secrets? Why do you think Anouk held on to The Gypsy Madonna for so many years?
2. Discuss the novel's narrative structure, which shifts between the present and the past. How does this technique allow the author to heighten the suspense in the story? In what ways does it offer further insight into the characters, Mischa in particular?
3. Why do the townspeople of Maurilliac, including those at the château, treat Anouk and Mischa with such disdain? Is their behavior justified in any way? Why does Anouk insist on attending Mass even though it means enduring the hostility of the villagers and Père Abel-Louis?
4. Why does Coyote's presence in Maurilliac and his public support of Anouk and Mischa change their standing in the town? What is it about Coyote that has such a powerful effect on the people around him? What does Mischa derive from his relationship with Coyote?
5. "It was a few moments before I realized that the angelic voice was my own," recalls Mischa about once again being able to speak, an occurrence he attributes to Coyote's "magic." Why does Mischa get his voice back? How does he overcome the psychological factors that have rendered him mute for more than four years? What part does Coyote play in bringing this about?
6. How does the behavior of the townspeople change once Mischa is able to speak? Why are they afraid of him, and how does Mischa use this fear to his advantage?
7. Compare Anouk's and Mischa's lives in Maurilliac to how they are received and treated in Jupiter, New Jersey. Even as a six-year-old child, does Mischa understand that he has been given a chance to start a new life?
8. Why does Coyote not reveal his whereabouts to Anouk and Mischa after he disappears? How does his disappearance compare to Dieter Schulz's or other traumatic events such as their near murder in the Maurilliac town square? What is the significance of Anouk's continuing to set a place for Coyote at the dinner table?
9. "I took my mother's love for granted, but I measured myself against his," says Mischa. Why is his self-image so intertwined with his love for and reverence of Coyote?
10. What is your overall impression of Coyote? Did your opinion change as the story progressed and more details about his character were revealed? Once he learns more details, does Mischa's opinion of Coyote ultimately change? Why or why not?
11. Why is Mischa unable (or unwilling) to sustain a committed romantic relationship? Why does it take him decades to realize that Claudine is the woman he loves? When Mischa arrives at Claudine's house to collect her before leaving Maurilliac, he recalls, "I felt physically powerful but almost crippled with fear. I couldn't tolerate life without her." Are Mischa's feelings for Claudine based on more than love? How so?
12. What motivates Mischa to seek out Père Abel-Louis when he returns to Maurilliac? Is it a desire for revenge or something else? What does Mischa take away from the encounter?
13. "I owed him nothing-he owed me an explanation and thirty years," says Mischa about Coyote's unexpected visit to his New York City office. Why does Mischa turn Coyote away without allowing him to explain where he has been for thirty years?
14. Mischa's quest to uncover the provenance of The Gypsy Madonna takes him on a journey into the past and leads him back to Maurilliac, where he relives his childhood and delves into his mother's past. How does the power of memory play out in the novel, especially for Mischa?
15. Strolling the streets of Maurilliac on his return, Mischa realizes that he is "a different person now, at least on the outside." How does Mischa view the town and its inhabitants differently now that he is seeing them through the eyes of an adult? In what ways have both Mischa and the town not changed?
16. Discuss the novel's ending. Do you suppose Coyote comes back to visit Mischa? What is the significance of Coyote sending Mischa his beloved guitar?