Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Sun and Other Stars includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Brigid Pasulka. 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.
In the seaside village of San Benedetto, a resort town on the Italian Riviera, twenty-two year old Etto finds himself adrift. Within the past year, Etto has not only lost both his twin brother and his mother, but in his grief has become estranged from his father, the local butcher. While his father passes the time with the men of the town in the fine tradition of Italian men everywhere—a reverential obsession with soccer—Etto retreats ever further from his day-to-day life, seeking solace in the hills above the town. But then a Ukrainian soccer star, the great Yuri Fil, sweeps into San Benedetto, taking refuge himself from an international scandal. Soon Yuri and his captivating tomboy sister, Zhuki, invite Etto into their world of sport, celebrity, loyalty, and humor. Under their influence, Etto begins to reconstruct his relationship with his father and, slowly, open himself back up to the world. Who knows: perhaps the game of soccer isn’t just a waste of time, and perhaps San Benedetto, his father, love, and life itself might have more to offer him than he ever believed possible. The Sun and Other Stars is a gorgeous, celebratory tale about families, compromise and community, and about how losses can be transformed into hope. Irresistible and unforgettable, it is a shimmering miracle of a book.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Etto says of his father, “In the past two years, we’ve created an entire branch of science out of living together but not living together.” (p. 30) Discuss how the two men relate to each other at the outset of The Sun and Other Stars. Why do you think they are so measured around each other? How does their relationship evolve?
2. When Etto is at Le Rocce, a girl tells him, “You’re not a very nice person.” (p. 81) Why does she say this? In what ways does Etto behave badly throughout The Sun and Other Stars? Based on Etto’s early behavior, what did you think of him? Did your opinion of Etto change throughout the course of the novel? In what ways?
3. What were your initial impressions of Yuri Fil? Did knowing how much Etto’s father admired Yuri affect your opinions of him? Do you believe, as Yuri does (p. 266), that his punishment was “fair”?
4. When Zhuki first comes into the butcher shop and Etto learns that Yuri Fil is in San Benedetto, why does he initially withhold the information from his father? Do you think that Etto is justified in doing so? Explain your opinion. Were you surprised by Papá’s reaction when he finds out the truth?
5. Etto sees Zhuki at Le Rocce and says “the fact that she didn’t put on a miniskirt and a glob of makeup to come here makes me feel less alone.” (p. 86) In what other ways does Zhuki’s presence help Etto to feel less isolated? How are Etto and Zhuki alike? Discuss their relationship.
6. Why does Etto feel differently about his mother’s death than he does about Luca’s? Discuss Etto’s reaction to each.
7. In discussing the way that his neighbors treat him, Etto says, “But nobody ever says a harsh word to me anymore, as if they think I’ve already done penance enough for a lifetime. Sometimes I wish they’d tell me off like they used to. Just once I’d like to hear it.” (p. 37) Why does Etto wish that his friends would speak harshly to him? Why do they relate to Etto in such a cautious manner? When Fede finally confronts Etto, yelling at him, what’s the effect? Do you think that Fede was right to confront Etto?
8. Do you think that Fede “misses Luca and I’m some kind of surrogate” (p. 119)? Discuss Etto’s friendship with Fede. When Fede attempts to talk to Etto about his own feelings of ennui, how does Etto react? What do you think Fede is trying to tell Etto?
9. There is a gnarled lemon tree on Nonno’s villa. In describing it, Etto says, “The villa is named after it—Il Limone—but the tree has been completely barren since the day they moved in.” (p. 95) What is the significance of the lemon tree? Why do you think Nonno persists in trying to get it to grow?
10. Describe Etto’s first calcio game with Yuri and Zhuki. Why do you think Etto returns to the field to play another game despite his assertions that he does not like calcio? What do you think of Yuri’s advice that “You must look up…. Feet are only tool” (p. 113)? How can this instruction be applied to the rest of Etto’s life? What other lessons does Yuri teach Etto both on and off the field?
11. When Papá and Nonno decide to teach Etto the art of butchery, he says “I have two people to thank for this, I know. Yuri and Jimmy.” (p. 187) Discuss the ways in which both Jimmy’s example and Yuri’s actions have paved the way for Etto and his father to begin repairing their relationship. Why did Etto initially resist learning how to be a butcher?
12. Why does Zhuki arrange a calcio game with the men of the village? What is the effect of the calcio match on Yuri and the men of San Benedetto?
13. Zhuki tells Etto that he is lucky because “You have no questions about your life. You already know the answers…. Your whole life is under control.” (p. 247-248) Do you agree with her assessment? Why or why not? What choices do both Etto and Zhuki have to make? Do you agree with their decisions?
14. After the death of Etto’s mother, Etto avoids going into the water at all costs. He says, “I used to believe it was the fear of death that kept me out of the water.” (p. 307) What do you think kept Etto out of the water? How has his perspective on his fear changed throughout the course of the novel? What accounts for the change?
15. Discuss the title of The Sun and Other Stars. Why do you think that Pasulka chose it?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Etto visits the Sistine Chapel with his mother many times before she dies. During one visit she says “something new, or at least something I hadn’t listened to before. She said the ceiling was the most human work of art ever created.” (p. 134) Read about the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling here: http://www.vatican.va/various/cappelle/sistina_vr/index.html Then discuss Etto’s mother’s statement with your book club. How are the images “human”? Can the same be said of the mural that Etto creates in the liceo?
2. Watch a soccer match with the members of your book club. Does it add to your understanding of the book? Why do you think calcio is so important to the residents of San Benedetto? How does it unite the town?
3. The festa is an important event for the town of San Benedetto, and some of the residents help by setting up or helping Martina prepare the feast, which features “tomato, roasted pepper, and olive salads; vegetable fritters; tiny artichokes sprinkled with parmesan, oil, and salt.” (p. 267) Prepare a feast like Martina’s to share with your book club when you discuss The Sun and Other Stars.
4. To learn more about Brigid Pasulka and read more about her other books, visit her official site at www.BrigidPasulka.com.
A Conversation with Brigid Pasulka
1. Your first novel, A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. How did the experience of writing The Sun and Other Stars compare? Since your first book was so critically acclaimed, did you feel added pressure while writing this one?
The Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award was certainly a surprise and an honor, but I think even before that, the idea that I was going to have a book published was surreal for me. Watching a major life goal that at one time seemed so distant being suddenly fulfilled in a matter of weeks was pretty difficult to wrap my head around, and at first I felt a little adrift, as if I no longer had a fixed point in the future to head toward. I also felt that I needed to put it in perspective and figure out exactly what place it was all going to have in my life.
Fortunately, I had already signed up for a volunteer program in rural Ukraine that summer, helping out with an English language immersion program for a Catholic university. It was kind of a mini-Eat, Pray, Love experience except we were staying in a run-down rural orphanage, complete with vats of orphanage food and questionable plumbing. Besides teaching classes, I spent a few hours a day standing through Ukrainian prayers and Masses and a few hours every evening playing extremely aggressive pick-up volleyball games with seminarians and monks, where I was usually the only female. I also did a lot of rambling around the hills, sitting against haystacks, and talking to cow herders. A month of that helped me straighten out my head, sort out my priorities, and redefine my vision of success as simply writing books I’m proud of. Occasionally, I have to consciously block out the external criticism or praise, but mostly, I just go down the rabbit hole and write and let everything else sort itself out.
2. As an award-winning novelist, do you have any advice for aspiring writers? Is there anything that you wish you had been told at the start of your writing career?
When I was in my early twenties, I wrote when I felt like it and never finished anything. Spinning my wheels like that got to be pretty frustrating. So one New Year’s Eve, I made the resolution that I was going to write every day until I was sick of it, and then I simply wouldn’t write anymore. It’s been about fifteen years since then, and now writing is like brushing my teeth—I can skip it if I want to, but then something just doesn’t feel right.
So my number one piece of advice is a variation on what I told myself all those years ago—don’t keep writing unless you feel absolutely compelled to do it because in some ways your life will be much simpler if you don’t write.
The other advice is to be patient about publishing. Make sure that first you have something you feel compelled to share with the world, and that your commitment to writing supersedes any success or failure in publishing. Take your time. Don’t be in too much of a rush. There’s something so wonderfully intimate about sitting down simply to write for yourself and for the story, and once you publish, you really can’t get that back.
3. Can you tell us about your writing process? When you started writing The Sun and Other Stars, did you know how Etto’s story would end?
I get teased a lot by my friends for being hyperefficient about some things, and they’re mostly right...except when it comes to writing, unfortunately. So with both the first novel and this one, I found myself writing about two thirds of the book, becoming dissatisfied with it, and then starting over from page one. I think I did that six or seven times with this book, and it wasn’t until I went on a writing residency in UCross, Wyoming, for a month that I was able to push through that invisible wall. I think the general idea of where Etto was heading became clear about then, too.
4. You describe the world of San Benedetto so vividly. How did you conduct your research? Did you base any of your characters on people you met while living in Alassio, Italy?
I borrowed small, superficial details from people I knew there and here, but the characters tend to take on lives of their own pretty quickly anyway. More important for me is to have a strong sense of the place and atmosphere, of being able to walk around with the characters and at least imagine what’s around the corner.
Probably the most important thing I got from the summer I spent in Alassio was another version of the intimacy I’d grown up with. (I spent most of my childhood in a farming township in north-central Illinois.) When I broke my nose, for example, the entire town of Alassio somehow knew exactly how it had happened, when my doctor appointments were, and when I was getting each set of bandages off. One day not long after it had healed, an old man I’d never met before came up to me, surveyed my nose, and said, “Well, it’s got a little bump in it...but they say it was crooked to begin with anyway.” I think it’s that lack of anonymity I felt that was the most useful in recreating Etto’s world.
5. Gail Tsukiyama praised The Sun and Other Stars as “storytelling at its best,” saying that you “made magic with this wise, poignant tale of love, community, and the sport that brings them all together!” What made you decide to make calcio the focus of your novel? Were you a calcio fan prior to living in Italy or were you more like Etto, who isn’t interested in calcio at all when The Sun and Other Stars begins?
I do have a big connection to sports in general, but not particularly to soccer. Growing up, I was a tomboy, and my dad, my brothers, and I played sports all the time—pretty much every sport except for soccer. In fact, I’m proud to say I was one of the girls to integrate Little League in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
But I’ve never really understood watching sports and keeping track of players and statistics and rankings. So it was a bit of a culture shock in the summer of 1998 when I found myself in Italy in the middle of the World Cup. The father in the family I was babysitting for was very involved in the calcio world and later went on to work for several Serie A teams, so he was even more invested than others. I remember having a couple of awkward conversations that summer where he would introduce me to some former Italian or Dutch soccer player he knew who happened to be vacationing in Alassio. He would rattle off some statistics about the guy’s career and then turn to me and ask, “Have you ever heard of him?” And I would sheepishly have to admit that no, I hadn’t. And then the father would turn to the guest and say, “You see? You should have more people tell you that, and then you might have a little more humility.” Or at least that’s how I remember it. So calcio somehow became for me the line between being a tourist and being an Italian.
Fast forward to the summer I spent in Ukraine in 2007. One of the students wore a jacket that had “Italia 1982” emblazoned on it. I was interested in all things Italian, of course, so I stopped him one day and asked what had happened in Italy in 1982. The guy looked at me like I had three heads. That incident more than anything else really catalyzed Etto’s character and the first chapter, which I started writing in a notebook in a pasture a few mornings later. I eventually decided to memorialize that student by naming my soccer star after him—Yuri Fil. To write the book, I tried to absorb as many aspects of Italian soccer as I could, but it still hasn’t sunk into my bones as I initially hoped it would.
6. Many of the characters in The Sun and Other Stars are conflicted in some way. As the story begins, it is unclear whether Yuri is innocent or whether Etto and his father will ever have more than a cursory relationship. Were you able to identify with your characters and the choices they made?
Absolutely. I think the tendency for readers is to wonder which character is the author, and for me, it’s no single character—there are pieces of me in nearly every character. We all have embarrassing moments, blind spots in our psyches, difficult choices, relationships we take for granted. We all strive to be better, and have regrets when we can’t overcome our flaws. It’s what unites us and makes us want to read about each other.
7. The art of butchery is an important metaphor throughout the story. Why did you choose to set parts of The Sun and Other Stars in the butcher shop? How did you research butchers’ techniques?
The summer I was babysitting in Alassio, we usually spent the morning at the beach, had lunch and a nap, and would run errands in the afternoon. This usually included a butcher shop called Macelleria Valdora, which was run by a guy my age named Nello and his parents. (For the record, Nello is definitely not the basis for Etto, nor is he the “Nello” in the book who beats his wife Pia.)
I never really got to know Nello besides the usual pleasantries, but somehow I felt a real kinship with him. My siblings and I had grown up working in my dad’s business from when I was about five through the age of twenty-one or twenty-two, and yet for us, taking it over was out of the question, and even the day-to-day work remained incidental. So I kept the idea of the son of a butcher in my head for almost ten years before I actually started writing the book.
When it came time to do research, I went back to Macelleria Valdora. They were great—they let me take pictures of every bit of their shop and answered every question I had, which is essential because butchering varies widely from country to country and even from town to town. I also read two books that really get into the gist of butchering—Cleaving by Julie Powell and Heat by Bill Buford—and watched a lot of YouTube videos of butchers breaking down carcasses. YouTube is amazing—you really can find anything on there.
8. References to Dante appear throughout The Sun and Other Stars. In fact, James McManus praises your book saying, “Fans of both Dante and the Azzurri will find plenty to relish and celebrate.” What made you decide to allude to the Divine Comedy throughout your book? Was there other literature that influenced you while you were writing The Sun and Other Stars?
That came about by happenstance, actually. I had already written a few half-drafts of the book when I put in a random reference to Roberto Benigni. I was simply Googling how to spell his name when I came across the fact that he’d done readings of the Divine Comedy across Italy and abroad. I read a statistic that 50 percent of Italians had seen Roberto Benigni’s performances either in person or on television, and it clicked that the Divine Comedy would be part of the common background of each of my character’s school experience.
I had never read the Divine Comedy, but I dove in, and quickly found uncanny similarities between Dante’s story and the story I’d already written, both in the sweeping arcs and the small details. Sometimes the parallels were so striking, they brought me to tears or at least chills up my spine. At a certain point, I decided to give myself over to Dante, so most of the minor characters in the town are from Dante, as are particular scenes and images. The result is that throughout the book, Etto is simultaneously experiencing parts of Hell, Heaven, and Purgatory, though his overall trajectory is definitely one of darkness to light, chaos to order, blindness to seeing. Like in the Divine Comedy.
A similar but less dramatic thing happened when Etto started painting the Sistine Chapel on one of the ceilings in his old high school. Michelangelo modeled many of his figures on people he knew, and I spent a lot of time staring at his figures until I could see my characters in them as well. And of course, with Michelangelo came the imagery from the Book of Genesis that starts and ends the novel.
9. What would you like your readers to take away from The Sun and Other Stars?
With this book more than the others I’ve written, I think what readers take away will depend on where they’re coming from and what they’re looking for. For example, my husband just doesn’t get soccer, so when he reads the book, he has to substitute baseball for soccer. One person who read it didn’t catch even a whiff of Dante; another read the entire book through that lens. For me, it’s a very religious book; for others, it will seem completely secular. It does seem to be a common thread with everything I write that I tend to toggle back and forth between humor and tragedy. I guess I feel that both originate in the same place of utter frankness, and the layering of one on top of the other is really the essence of the human experience, or as Dante would term it, the divine comedy.
10. What are you working on next?
I seem to be just about finished working my way through the experiences I had in my twenties, so the next book is a set of linked stories set in Russia, mostly Moscow, where I lived for two years after I was in Italy. For the novel after that, I’ve gone back to some childhood memories. That story takes place in the Midwest in 1978 or 1979, and it follows five kids who live in scattered foster care situations until one Christmas, one of them decides she’s going to collect her siblings and go confront their mother. After that, I think I’m going to Berlin in the late ‘80s. But who knows? That’s exactly the fun of writing.