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Windfalls

A Novel
By Jean Hegland

Reading Group Guide

    Questions and Topics for Discussion
    1. Why do you think Jean Hegland chose to call her novel Windfalls? Do you think it is a good title for the book? Why or why not?
    2. The novel opens with a lyrical description of one of Anna's photographs -- of a lone tree on a barren windswept hillside beneath a stormy sky, its trunk split almost in two. What purpose do the tree and its photograph serve in the novel and in the lives of the two main characters?
    3. Both Anna and Cerise find themselves facing unplanned pregnancies, but they make very different decisions about their lives. Were the choices they made the right ones for them at the time? Do they turn out to be wise decisions as their lives unfold?
    4. Windfalls has been described as a deeply stirring novel about the choices that every woman faces. Discuss the ways that life circumstances either force choices on us or take them away from us.
    5. Joelle Fraser, author of The Territory of Men, describes Windfalls as "an elegy to motherhood in all its painful, beautiful complexity." Talk about the rapturous joys and heartbreaking sorrows and terrors of motherhood depicted in Windfalls. What other novels have you read or movies have you seen that deal with the theme of motherhood and its rewards and costs? How do they compare with Windfalls?
    6. What do you think of the way the author deals with the sensitive subject of abortion and a woman's right to choose? Are her own views about abortion made clear in the novel? Should they be? Is it possible for a work of fiction to simply explore the human dimensions of a highly controversial political, moral, or religious issue without taking a stand? If you knew that an author's views on a social issue you feel passionately about stood in opposition to your own, how do you think it would it affect your response to her novel?
    7. In Windfalls, Jean Hegland also explores such volatile contemporary social issues as welfare and homelessness. In an interview she gave after her acclaimed first novel, Into the Forest, Hegland explained that regardless of how important an author considers the themes of her fiction to be, "in a novel, it's the story that comes firstŠIt's a challenge because one can get so fervent, but more is less when it comes to fervency." Do you agree or disagree? Do you think she succeeds or fails in Windfalls in expressing the passions of her characters while keeping her own fervency in check?
    8. Anna's decision to terminate her pregnancy is influenced by her impression of her sister's life. "Sally had been a painter before Jesse was born. She had studied in Italy, had won awardsŠbut the woman she'd been then seemed to have vanished into the abyss of motherhoodŠAnna wondered how much art was lost to the world each time another baby was born. With a ferocity that nearly frightened her, she'd thought, I could never be like that." Later on, when Anna marries and has two children of her own, how do her views change? How does she balance the conflicting demands of art and motherhood?
    9. Why do you think Anna asked to see what was taken from her body during the abortion? Did the request surprise you? How do you think her graphic image of what she saw affected her? Why do you think she never told anyone about her abortion, and why does she finally open up to Cerise toward the end of the novel?
    10. When Cerise was a teenager she often would deliberately burn her wrists with a heated iron, a mysterious craving to hurt herself that she could neither understand nor stop, but which disappeared when Melody was born. She is frantic when she witnesses her 14-year-old daughter plunging her forearm against the heated element of the stove. She ached with pain both current and remembered -- not the sting of blisters on tender skin as much as the hole in her soul those burns were meant to cauterize. Talk about the overwhelming mix of love, fear, anger, and self-recrimination Cerise -- or any mother -- experiences as she watches her child behave in dangerous and self-destructive ways.
    11. What do you think of the way the novel is constructed -- as a series of alternating sections on the separate lives of its two main characters? Talk about the way the author manages to intertwine their lives. How do these two women, of very different educational backgrounds, economic stations, and temperaments, become friends and what does each learn from the other?
    12. What life lessons does Anna learn from her grandmother's story of her stillborn daughter? What is the significance of that one quietly spoken word, "Because"? How does the woman Cerise encounters in the forest help her to go on living when she longs to end her life? How does young Lucy help Cerise to cope with her grief over Travis? What does Cerise mean when she says goodbye to Anna and explains, "I need to find out what someone means by Saturday morning"?

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