Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Vivian Rising includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Daniella Brodsky. 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 so many ways, Viv’s life is in a holding pattern that she can’t or won’t change. When her beloved grandmother dies, Viv appears to have lost the glue that’s held her together, and her faith gives out completely. As she searches for something to believe in again, Viv finds hope in a most unlikely place: with Kavia, an alarmingly perceptive astrologer. Viv is skeptical, but under Kavia’s guidance Viv begins to process her grief and rebalance her life. Every prediction Kavia makes seems to speak directly to Viv’s life—even the one about meeting Len, who quickly becomes Viv’s greatest source of security and comfort. But just as she settles into his arms—and into his heart—Kavia insists a relationship with him is dangerous. The stars haven’t steered her wrong yet, but Viv has a choice to make: follow the path written in the stars, or trust herself to write her own story?
Questions For Discussion
1. What do you learn about Viv in the first scene of the novel? How do her thoughts contrast with her lack of physical action? What do you think prevents her from leaving the hospital bathroom? What does this tell you about the ways in which Viv is held back in her life?
2. In what way does Grams’s death force Viv to “relearn the world” (pg. 105)? Why is the pigeon an appropriate symbol for Viv’s experience? Why do you think it takes a tragedy for Viv to make positive changes in her life?
3. Viv’s astrologer, Kavia, is a strong-willed older woman. Do you think Viv sees Kavia as a substitute mother figure? Is her decision to trust Kavia a rational one, given the astrologer’s eerie insight, or is this choice more a result of Viv’s emotional frailty? Why is it ultimately important for Viv to see Kavia as she truly is?
4. How is the reading of Viv’s rising sign supported by what you learn about Viv’s personality throughout the novel? How does astrology help Viv learn about herself, forgive herself, and become stronger? Do you believe that her reading was specific to her time and place of birth, as Kavia says, or does it hold universal truth, helpful to anyone?
5. Kavia advises Viv, “You master this—identify your biggest problem, and the way to work with it—and you’ll be able to tackle your challenges, all your challenges in a way that really works for you” (pg. 180). What do you think is Viv’s biggest problem? How does resolving it make everything else in her life easier?
6. Why do you think Viv hangs onto the “one in my head” version of her mother, when all evidence points to “the real one”? Viv ultimately decides to give her mother half of the money in Grams’ account. Would you have done the same?
7. Discuss the title, Vivian Rising. Who has risen by the end of the novel? Why does Viv refuse to be called Vivian at first? What is the significance of Vivian acknowledging her given name?
8. Why is Len so angry when he learns that Viv has been consulting an astrologer? Is he right when he says that she “can’t even think for herself” (pg. 256)? Why does Viv need horoscopes to come to decisions? What is preventing her from being in control of her own life?
9. Viv was born into an atheist household but raised in the Jewish faith. She turns to astrology when her belief in God falters. Why do you think Viv continues to reach out and seek a deeper meaning to her life, even after a crisis of faith? Does she use astrology as a spiritual guide or as a crutch? In what ways is choosing to forsake Kavia’s advice for a future with Len a true leap of faith?
10. Listening to Buddy Holly, Viv wonders, “Can art do just the same thing as astrology” (pg. 232)? What do you think are the similarities between art and astrology? Can appreciating art lead to understanding yourself? What about reading horoscopes?
11. When Viv’s ready to leave Kavia for the last time she decides to take the pile of books with her. “They’ve helped. They’ve inspired me and taught me to see the world differently the way the best books can and I’m not giving that up” (pg. 265). What books have inspired you? Can a book be great without offering such influence?
12. Chapter 32 opens with the quote, “Lost Illusion is the undisclosed title of every novel.” How does “Lost Illusion” relate to Vivian Rising? Discuss this quote in the context of other book club picks.
A Conversation with Daniella Brodsky
Q: What inspired you to write Vivian Rising?
A: Vivian Rising began to take shape a year after the death of my best friend and grandmother, Sylvia. When I was once again head-on with the blank screen, there appeared a woman named Viv, locked in an ensuite bathroom, faced with the terrifying prospect of losing the one person who’d always cared for her. She had her own unique circumstances and sensibilities, but we shared our grief and the seemingly unanswerable question: “now what?” As the novel unfolded, it became an ode to the grieving process that at one point or another we all go through. Along with a gigantic thanks to the influence and support a grandparent can be, my wish is that the novel provides a flicker of promise—that the hopeful place we emerged from can once again be ours if we learn to adjust to the inevitable realities of loss and change.
Q: Do you follow astrology yourself?
A: I have a cautious romantic’s relationship with astrology. I will always remain in awe of the uncanny specifics of readings, especially in a fully detailed chart and will never cease to think, “How the heck does that work?” It boggles my mind to imagine the world so interconnected as astrology deems it, but as science continues to study events and causation, it appears undeniable. Just look at global warming! At times I have entered into embarrassingly dedicated consideration of my chart and horoscope, and as a benefit, I’ve enjoyed enlightening discussions and thought patterns. I’m not sure I would list it on my resume, but I always walk away from astrology knowing something more about myself, or with a new perspective on a situation. However, I sometimes find the more negative readings can color my outlook, and in those cases I wonder about the power of suggestion for starting out a month, or a day, on the wrong foot.
Q: Viv is a New York native, a journalist and by the end of Vivian Rising, a novelist. How closely do you identify with Viv?
A: Novelists should always identify with their heroes. If you love them, others will love them, too. I write about real, important conflicts people are faced with in life. The incidentals of their lives aren’t what makes them sympathetic. There are plenty of journalists and New Yorkers I would never be able to identify with. So why did I give Viv the familiars of a journalist’s life and a setting in Brighton Beach? Good question. I made her an artist afraid or otherwise unready to face up to her calling because I am obsessed with this idea of what makes an artist, of this idea people always have that “things happen for a reason,” and that artists must face brutal lives to understand pain. I recall an agent telling me before I got married that she was afraid I’d be too happy and lose my inspiration. This has always stuck with me. I consider my creative output during wonderful and painful periods—I think both offer their own unique experience that adds texture to fiction. I have interviewed dozens of artists and I never cease to be amazed at the unique ways in which they take the world in, process it, and present it to us in a way no one else in the world could do. I also believe artists have an important role in recording life. These questions are some I expand on in my new novel.
Q: Why Brighton?
A: This is something I knew I wanted to do the second Viv showed up on my computer screen trapped in a bathroom: I wanted to pay homage to this “Old Brooklyn” that is almost on its way to extinction. This lifestyle is so unique to this place and these people who immigrated to America before and during World War II—many of whom have already passed on. As I cleaned my grandmother’s apartment out with my cousin—heartbreaking business—I had this strong sensation that I wanted to preserve this world we were packing up and throwing out. It was a place so special I wanted to share it with the world. Viv’s is my grandmother’s apartment; this is her floor tile, her fruit store, her view of the Manhattan skyline and the Atlantic.
Q: Many of your novels deal with upheavals that force your protagonists to learn more about themselves. Have you experienced similar situations in your own life?
A: I wouldn’t share this with just anyone, but people who love books so much they want to know more about what’s behind them are just the kind of people I would want to share this with. When I was in the fifth grade my father suffered a massive stroke. He died four years later from complications of this. I cannot begin to write about the terror I experienced during those years. I don’t believe we ever get over such fear and loss. They inform every aspect of our development—our sense of security, our confidence, our outlooks. In some way or another, I always revisit this idea of how experience shapes us. I’m told, “Write a story with the title Princess of Park Avenue,” and what do I do but find my heroine’s life has been stunted by an inability to get over a love that was terrible for her? I believe I will always be riddled by this concept, but lucky for me, this is the subtext of every story ever told—we are never divorced from our history, no matter how we try to shake it. Just ask Madonna.
Q: You write very lovingly of Brooklyn. How do you think place informs your writing?
A: I first learned the power of a writer changing environs when I left New York City for rural Connecticut several years ago. It was such a fertile time for my imagination—driving, seeing how pumpkins grow on vines, not in a box at the corner bodega, deciding whether it’s safe to tiptoe past twelve deer on the way to my car. Currently, I’m living in Australia, and I have never been more inspired . . . every day offers a new experience, and as I’ve said, this is the most nourishing food for a creative mind. Because of my new home, I’ve been thinking more and more about what place does as a story element, too. I believe it can be extremely important; for instance, could Le Divorce take place anywhere but in Paris? But it can be irrelevant, too, if a story relegates setting to the background and concentrates on universal experiences instead. One thing is for certain about changing your environment, though: it certainly forces you to think outside your own experiences.
Q: In Vivian Rising, you’ve created a warm community of spirited seniors. Have you been inspired by older family members or friends?
A: I often tell people they better watch out or I might steal their mother or grandmother when they aren’t looking. I “collect” these people because I am drawn to them in a way I don’t fully understand myself. I’ve been told I have an “old soul.” I think, in a way, this may be true. I remember, several years before my grandmother passed, telling a friend, “I’d better prepare myself; my best friend is in her eighties.” Like a smoker, I casually recognized the danger, but my heart wasn’t in it. My grandmother really got me. I’m not so sure you get more than one of those people in your life.
Q: Are there any authors who have been inspirational to your work? Do you have any suggestions for future book club picks?
A: I have so many favorite authors, and the list keeps growing—both in name and in genre. I owe a great deal to all of them because they inspire me and create a “best practice” guide for me so that I don’t get lazy and always aspire to be better. These include, but certainly are not limited to: Lorrie Moore, John Cheever, Dorothy Templeton, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Doris Lessing’s short fiction. Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here and Janet Fitch’s White Oleander have kept me company over so many reads the pages look antique. I tend to reread lots of classics, too. My husband has completely different reading tastes to me, but I respect his own writing and world view so deeply that I eat up the books he gives me. This has certainly had a profound effect on widening my perspective, interests, and even my style: some of those are Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts.
Q: How does your writing process as a freelance journalist differ from the process of focusing on a novel? Do you prefer one or the other?
A: I eat, breathe, and live fiction writing. It never feels like work. Even on the worst deadline, in the middle of my holiday, I still get a high and a satisfaction from the seemingly infinite layers of mastery on offer if only you stick at it. On the other hand, I loathe, procrastinate, and feel boxed in by most of the non-fiction lifestyle journalism I have done—though I worked tirelessly to score the assignments. Fiction is a natural fit for me because it’s organic and in many ways unrestrained—completely the product of creative expression, whereas magazine articles most often have a specific unbending thesis that must be upheld, no matter how messy and malleable the actual truth is. My mind naturally repels this clean, categorized, black and white version of anything, though I fought it for many years to pay the bills and to prove to myself that I could. The only kind of periodical writing I would like to do now is of the interview, opinion, or personal essay variety, however, any time I try to write about myself I am hopeless at taking myself seriously, and the effort flops right on the page. I will not give up, though. One day I will be able to give myself the same reverence I do my characters. Hopefully.
Q: Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
A: I am working on a novel about a woman with an unconventional, powerful, yet painful relationship with her mother. It is in many ways about the sort of artist’s experience I mentioned above as well as the universal questions about how love can shape us. I am also working on a novel about a woman’s strange and dangerous dip into self-discovery and alcoholism after a divorce. In the non-fiction realm, I am compiling a book of inspiration for writers, artists, and artful people.
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
A: I have tons (such as don’t overuse italics: look, I haven’t used them at all, so now I’ve gotten you to believe I have something very important to say). Seriously though, in my newest role, I’ve been teaching novel writing at the Australian National University’s continuing education program. This is as rewarding to me as it is for my students because they teach me to look at writing in a logical way that hadn’t occurred to me before, and mostly because each person who didn’t believe they could write, and then actually does, backs up my theory that a little encouragement goes a long way.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Viv finds it helpful to read her horoscope in the morning, then take inventory of the day ahead. Try it out for a week. Check your horoscope daily, keep a journal of your findings, and share your insights with the group.
2. Check out Daniella Brodsky’s website for information on her other novels, upcoming projects and events: www.daniellabrodsky.com
3. For more information on astrology and other spiritual belief systems, check out www.Beliefnet.com. While you’re there, take the BeliefOMatic quiz and see what tradition your beliefs are most connected to.