Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Y: A Novel includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Marjorie Celona. 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.
Abandoned at the local YMCA hours after she was born, sixteen-year-old Shannon knows she should be grateful for her makeshift family. After years of bouncing between foster homes, Shannon finally finds stability with Miranda, her new foster mother, who sacrifices every personal comfort to provide for Shannon and Miranda’s own daughter, Lydia-Rose. But Shannon’s restless spirit and yearning to know more about her origins leads her into the gritty streets of downtown Victoria, where she loses herself among the city’s outcasts. There she meets Vaughn, the sole witness to her abandonment on the doorstep of the Y, and Shannon resolves to track down her birth parents—no matter how painful their stories might be. Shannon’s search is interwoven with the devastating, extraordinary story of the days leading up to her birth. When Yula and Shannon finally meet, they realize the possibilities and limitations of a blood tie and the comfort and stability that chosen families can provide.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Reread “Y,” the opening lines of the novel. Does this description of the letter “Y” change your understanding of the novel or the title in any way? Is there a particular line that stands out to you?
2. Discuss the structure of Y. How do the two storylines—Shannon’s adolescence and Yula’s life leading up to the final days of her pregnancy—illuminate each other? How does the tension build in Yula’s story, as it approaches the moment of Shannon’s birth and abandonment?
3. Shannon describes herself as “a cross between Shirley Temple and a pug” (pg. 58) and a “bum-eyed Smurf.” (pg. 92) How do you envision Shannon? Why do you think the author chose to focus on Shannon’s physical appearance? Do you think Shannon has an accurate perception of how she looks? Why or why not?
3. Consider Vaughn’s power of foresight. How much of the future can he predict, and to what extent can he influence what happens? Why does he decide not to intervene when he witnesses Shannon’s abandonment at the YMCA? Do you think he made the right choice?
4. Discuss Shannon’s habit of snooping. Why do you think she is so curious about other people’s secrets? What does Shannon learn about Miranda, Lydia-Rose, and Vaughn from rifling through their private possessions?
5. There are two versions of the day Julian abducted young Shannon in his car—Shannon remembers Miranda rescuing her, while Miranda assures her that it was Shannon’s teacher who found her, hours later. Does this discrepancy make you question Shannon’s reliability as a narrator? How does Shannon seek to resolve her unfinished business with Julian?
6. Compare the three main settings of the novel: Shannon’s hometown of Victoria; the wilderness of Mount Finlayson, where Yula lives with Harrison, Quinn, and Eugene; and the city of Vancouver that Shannon visits on her sixteenth birthday. What is beautiful about each of these settings? What is ugly, grim, or ominous about each location?
7. Yula “felt the same arrogance from their neighbors on Mount Finlayson, as if living out of the city, in nature, made you different somehow.” (pg. 76) Discuss how the residents of Mount Finlayson consider themselves “different.” How does their arrogance put them in danger? What kind of relationship does Yula have with nature?
8. Y is narrated entirely through Shannon’s voice, even in circumstances when it is impossible for her to be present or recall certain events. For instance on pg. 212, Shannon narrates her own birth: “I am an easy birth, as was Eugene. My mother pants, like Jo taught her to do, and Luella tries to get her to relax.” What did you think of this unique use of narrative perspective? How did it affect your reading experience?
9. Shannon realizes on her overnight trip to Vancouver, “I was as much a freak as anyone else.” (pg. 113) Review the characters Shannon encounters on her trip. Why do you think Shannon is drawn to dysfunction? How does the realization of her difference affect her?
10. Midway through the novel, Shannon wonders, “But how do you become a part of someone else’s family? You don’t, and you never do.” (pg. 126) Do you think Shannon feels the same way by the end of the novel? Why or why not? Did your own definition of family change as you progressed through the novel?
11. Vaughn tells Shannon that her mother’s decision to abandon her “was an act of generosity. An act of love.” (pg. 167) Do you agree? What other emotions and circumstances contributed to Yula’s decision that August morning?
12. In his letter to Shannon, Harrison writes about his “poison blood,” the wildness she might have inherited from him. (pg. 219) Consider how Shannon resembles her father. How does this wildness help or hinder Shannon throughout her journey?
13. Deborah Willis refers to Shannon’s character as “the charming, brave, and blistering heart of this novel. She’s open to everyone she meets—mothers, fathers, the homeless, the addicted—so her story is, too.” Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of Shannon’s openness. How does her connection to all types of people help her, and when does it get her in trouble? How does Shannon’s openness influence the narrative as a whole?
14. Discuss the conclusion of Y. Were you surprised by this ending? Why or why not? Did you expect more or less from Shannon and Yula’s reunion?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. How well do you know your family? Sketch a simple family tree that charts the generations of your family. Bring your sketch to your book club meeting and discuss the traits you may have inherited from your family members, keeping in mind that these traits may not only be limited to physical features, but can include dispositions, tempers, and personalities as well.
2. Get involved at your local YMCA. Visit www.ymca.net/be-involved to learn how to volunteer, donate, advocate, or join.
3. Have each member in your book club select a letter from the alphabet. Try your hand at writing a short poem inspired by this letter.
A Conversation with Marjorie Celona
1. Who are some of your inspirations and influences, on both your writing career in general and on the creation of Y as a novel?
I’m more indebted to singular books and stories than I am to any author’s oeuvre, with the exception of Alice Munro, Kurt Vonnegut and Raymond Carver. So: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories, Alasdair Gray’s Unlikely Stories, Mostly, Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here, Richard Ford’s Rock Springs, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer. These books and stories either made me want to be a writer or, now, make me want to continue.
2. Tell us about how you came to write Y. Where did the idea first come from?
I was 23 and had just gotten an internship at the Malahat Review, and was so nervous about doing a good job that I spent a month in the archives of the library, reading back issues. For whatever reason, I noticed that a weirdly large number of stories began with a word that started with Y (MR uses a drop cap—and so the first letter of the first word was huge). I thought about the letter on the bus ride home, then started the short story that evening. It was the first story I published in an American literary journal—Indiana Review—and was later anthologized in The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Some years went by. I moved to the U.S. in ’07 and spent two years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Though I loved my time at Iowa, I didn’t anticipate how much I would miss Vancouver Island. I used to spend hours doing image searches of Emily Carr paintings, just to feel like I was in the damp shade of the forest again. I started thinking that adapting Y into a novel could be a way of transporting myself back to the place I so missed, but I didn’t have the time or headspace to begin writing (if you must know, by this time I was working as a housekeeper in Wisconsin—I’m always struck by how many ups and downs a writer must face in the course of his or her career).
Then, in the fall of 2010, I received a one-year writing fellowship from Colgate University. I wrote the first draft of Y in a cottage in the woods of upstate New York. Sometimes I wrote for twelve hours a day. I saw almost no one that year. There were eight chickens on the property and two guard dogs and sometimes it snowed so much that I couldn’t open my front door. The cabin was heated by a tiny propane heater and a fireplace and I chopped more wood that winter than I care to remember. I finished the book in a castle in rural Scotland, while living with five other writers—with a no-talking policy during the day—as part of an international writers’ retreat. In some ways, writing Y was wonderful; in others, it felt like an almost ten-year slog.
3. Y originally appeared as a critically acclaimed short story. How did the short story differ from the novel and what were some of the challenges in expanding it to a full length format?
Shannon never finds her mom in the short story—it ends with her finding Vaughn—so part of the challenge was figuring out how to find Yula. Very early on, I decided it wasn’t fair to Yula not to tell her side of things, too, and so I added in her storyline. Expanding it to a full-length format ended up not being as challenging as I thought it would be—the first draft came pretty quickly. But revising it—getting it right—well, that was almost torturous.
4. The novel is written in a very interesting narrative structure of alternating timelines and sets of characters. What were some of the challenges and rewards of this structure? Which story thread did you first conceive of, Shannon’s or Yula’s? Did their stories turn out how you initially intended or were there any unexpected turns along the way?
The challenge was keeping the chronology—and everyone’s histories—straight in my head. The reward was that I could switch storylines. One day I’d work on Shannon’s, the next on Yula’s. Each storyline took a very different part of my brain to write. Some days I could only work on one and not the other. I never wrote with any kind of intention or premeditation in mind—except, of course, I knew I wanted Shannon and Yula to find each other.
5. Describe your writing process: how and where do you write? What part of the process do you find most rewarding: the initial inspiration, the writing, or the rewriting? Do you prefer a lot of editing and revising?
I write in bed, on my laptop. I write for long stretches of time. I find rewriting to be taxing, laborious, gruelling, intellectual work. To avoid it, I edit as I go along, revising sentence by sentence, until the rhythm sounds right. Almost always, there’s music.
6. Shannon’s troubling experiences with the foster care system are illustrated with fine attention paid to realism and detail. What sort of research did you do into the lives of foster children?
I talked to social workers and foster parents. I read about foundlings, about adoption, about the search for birth parents. I reconnected with one of my best friends from childhood, who is adopted, and we talked on the phone night after night.
One night I drew a little graph where I examined the distance between things that had happened in my life and things that had happened in Shannon’s—and I asked myself whether there was enough similarity in our experiences for me to write this book. I still ask myself this.
7. One of the central questions of the novel is whether Shannon is better off not knowing who her parents are. Do you think it’s possible for an adopted person to live their lives not knowing his or her biological parents?
So many of us—adopted or not—grow up not knowing one of our birth parents. I think the yearning is always there, regardless of whether that yearned-for parent is biological or not. Shannon yearns for her former foster parents, too, and eventually attempts to reconnect with her abusive foster father, Julian. We always want the person who has left us behind.
8. Shannon’s story is filled with a lot of tragedy and pain, but as she grows into adolescence, we do see examples of good memories, and some humour. How important was it to inject some lighter aspects into the story?
Hmm. I suppose I could launch into a discussion of how comedy and tragedy are intrinsically linked in fiction, or how a story wouldn’t be truthful if it lacked any levity, but, really, I just like to laugh, no matter what I’m doing.
9. What do you hope that the reader will take away from the story?
I just hope it’s an honest account of something—an attempt to portray the world as it truly is. In my wildest dreams, I hope he or she feels the way I did as a young girl when I first read books like Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Kaye Gibbons’s Ellen Foster, Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, and Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here—all these books are about unhappy girls, so satisfying when you are one, or used to be one, or will always be one, or whatever.