Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Discussion Points
- In The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi, fiction and history are seamlessly woven together. Discuss how Ms. Park achieves this. What "liberties" does she take that a non-fiction author could not? What details does she use to make the world alive and vivid? How does the device of the secret book contribute to the veracity of the world?
- Both God and fortune are invoked by the characters to explain existence. Grazia writes, "Fortune favors the bold," and "Fortuna is never as generous as she likes to appear." She also writes, "For a time, we stood huddled together in front of the wreckage of Gallic's banco, too stunned by the vastness of God's indifference." What is the difference between fortune and God in the novel? What is the role of fortune in the lives of the characters? What is the role of God?
- In The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi, Ms. Park re-creates the life of the court and the great houses of the Jews. Grazia writes, "It is said that no one in Mantova, save the Gonzagas themselves, owned more elegant tableware than Rachel dei Rossi." Though the riches of the Gonzagas and the dei Rossis may be similar, their lives and values are different. In what ways do their views on money, education, and religion differ? How are they similar?
- In the world of Renaissance Italy, the lives of the Jews and the aristocracy are very separate yet closely entwined at the same time. How are their lives linked? How do they depend upon each other? What role do the Jews play in the cultural and economic life of Renaissance Italy?
- Grazia's father is a gambler and bargaining is a part of his business at the bank. Both the Jews and the aristocracy engage in gambling and bargaining. Discuss the role both activities play in their lives. Is the ability to bargain respected? What does it take to be a good "bargainer"? Are similar skills used in negotiating the affairs of state and the affairs of the bank?
- Grazia writes with regards to Isabella and her son that, "the correspondence between mother and son constitutes a veritable lexicon of double-dealing evasion and betrayal." Why does she characterize their relations this way? What circumstances give rise to this type of relationship? Finally, Grazia says that "the Palace is maintained by compromise and opportunism," and "why do sensible nations entrust themselves to these royal monsters and half-wits?" Why do you think they do?
- Grazia writes that the Gonzagas let "the dei Rossi men display their colors...Jehiel was a prince that night. He made our house a palace. My father was a king and all of us were members of a royal family," adding that "Jews are back in style." Why does Grazia compare her family to nobility? Why do the Jews imitate the princes? And what are the reasons for banishing and then reinstating the Jews at court?
- Grazia's parents were "adherents of all things modern and humanistic." She writes that she was not raised by strict Jewish law that stated, "First the child is allured; then the strap is laid upon his back." What is the difference between a Jewish education and a humanist education? What characterizes humanism? What characterizes Judaism? What are the differences between the two tenets?
- Grazia's tutor at her grandmother's house says, "that it is not proper for a devout Jewish girl to speak Latin." Furthermore, her grandmother tells Grazia that "books destroy a woman's brains" and that books and study have corrupted Grazia's virtue. Why are knowledge and scholarship for women looked down upon in the Jewish religion? Is this a religious phenomenon or a societal one? Is it any different for the Christian princesses, and if so why? How does Grazia succeed in becoming a scholar?
- When Grazia's father is caught "coin clipping" the Duke's coins, the Duke forgives him and turns him over to his own people to administer justice. The Wad Kellilah tribune finds Grazia's father guilty, and in his excommunication ceremony they treat him horribly, spitting on him and shaming him in front of other Jews. Why are the Jews harsher to Grazia's father than the aristocracy? What is the psychology behind such behavior?
- Near the end of the novel, Gershorn recounts how he finally understands why Judah always said, "A Jew must be an observing Jew; there is no other kind; for ours is a religion of practice, not transcendence," and is relieved of the "agony of living a double life," of being a Jew and not practicing the rituals. Why was it agony for him? How could the idea of a double life be considered one of the themes of this novel? In what ways do Jehiel, Grazia, and Judah live double lives? Do any of the Christian characters lead double lives?
- Grazia gives her son a few pieces of advice in her secret book. One is that he must stake his claim as a man and the other is that he should never neglect the obligations of mourning. Why are these two pieces of advice so important to Grazia? What else does she want to impart to her son in writing this book? What kind of man does Grazia hope Danilo will be?
- Grazia says in regard to her Book of Heroines that a great woman is one who rises above others through, "intellect, daring, or strength." According to this description of virtue, could Grazia put herself in the Book of Heroines and if so, why?
- When Grazia fled Mantova as a child she took nothing because, "God had told them [the Jews] to carry forth naught of the flesh abroad out of the house, not even a bone." Grazia writes that she had persuaded herself that, "if she followed God's instruction to the letter, He might bring them forth safely." Later, when Asher is placed in )ail, she begins to question God. When Judah says to her "put your faith in God's mercy," Grazia thinks to herself that she does not have "serene faith in God's beneficence." Why is Grazids faith shaken when Judah's faith never is? What is Grazids relationship to religion and to God?
- When Grazia fled Mantova as a child she took nothing because, "God had told them [the Jews] to carry forth naught of the flesh abroad out of the house, not even a bone." Grazia writes that she had persuaded herself that, "if she followed God's instruction to the letter, He might bring them forth safely." Later, when Asher is placed in jail, she begins to question God. When Judah says to her "put your faith in God's mercy," Grazia thinks to herself that she does not have "serene faith in God's beneficence." Why is Grazia's faith shaken when Judah's faith never is? What is Grazia's relationship to religion and to God?
- What do you make of her final choice between husband and lover? What effects does if have on her son? What is Ms. Park trying to say through Grazia's decision? Is there a moral to this story?