by Ann Patchett
A girl walked into the bar. I was hunched over, trying to open a box of Dewar's without my knife. I'd bent the blade the day before prying loose an old metal ice cube tray that had frozen solid to the side of the freezer. The box was sealed up tight with strapping tape. She waited there quietly, not asking for anything, not leaning on the bar. She held her purse with two hands and stood still.
John Nickel is a black
ex-jazz musician who only wants to be a good father. But when his son
is taken away from him, he's left with nothing but the Memphis bar he
manages. Then he hires Fay, a young white waitress, who has a volatile
brother named Carl in tow. Nickel finds himself consumed with the idea
of Taft, Fay and Carl's dead father, and begins to reconstruct the life
of a man he never met. But his sympathies for these lost souls soon take
him down a twisting path into the lives of strangers...
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1. At the start, John Nickel seems to see Fay and Carl in terms of someone else's children that he is tempted to father. Clearly, his relationship to Fay changes: Why? What is the connection, in his head, between romance and parenthood?
2. Why do Fay and John go to Shiloh?
3. The scenes of Levon Taft's life aren't real; they are imagined by John Nickel. Why is John so interested in Fay and Carl's father? What does it mean that John imagines Levon Taft in relation to black children, first the boy who is selling chocolates and later the boy at the wrestling meet in Memphis?
4. Do you think there was anything John could have done to repair his relationship with Marion? Why do you think Marion moved in with John after Franklin was born? Do you think their relationship ever had a chance?
5. Why did Marion move to Florida? For a new life? Or to hurt John?
6. Did you think it was strange that you didn't know what the main character's name was right away? Did you notice? What was the author's purpose?
7. How do you interpret the last scene in the book? Why does the author choose to end with a scene in which Taft, Fay, and Carl are all much younger than they have previously appeared in the story? Why not end the book with John and Franklin?
8. The action of this novel takes place over a very short period of time, about ten days. How would this have been a different story if it had taken place over a year?
9. The neck plays an important role in this book: John feels the lingering touch of Fay's hand on his neck; Mrs. Woodmore scratches and scars John's neck when he is late for Franklin's birth; Carl shoots the deer in the neck though his father tells him not to, and later he shoots John through the neck. Is there any connection between these events?
10. How do you feel about an author writing outside his or her own race and gender? Would you think this book had more validity if it were written by a black man?
11. The blues are a strong presence in the book, and yet they remain offstage. We never see John perform as a drummer. How important is his life as a musician to the way in which we understand his character?
12. Do you think because the author is a woman, John is a realistic character? Does he have any perspectives that the average male normally wouldn't?
13. Carl is a troubled person. Why do you think he turned to drugs? Is Fay helping or hurting him? Is John?
14. The characters seem to let their situation dictate their actions instead of making decisions. Do you think this is true? Do you think the characters had strong convictions that they acted on?
15. Why do you think story switches between the present and the past? What are the parallels between Taft and John? Why do you think we see the Taft family's past, but not John's? Why do you think John gets entangled with this family?
16. Do you think Carl had a good relationship with his father? Do you think John did with his? Does John with Franklin?
17. Do you think Fay loves John? Does John love Fay? Did you believe Fay's message from Mrs. Woodmoore?
18. Were you surprised by the ending? What do you think will happen between Fay and John? John and Marion? Carl and Fay?
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"As resonant as a blues song . . . Expect miracles when you read Ann Patchett's fiction."
The New York Times Book Review
"A moving emblem of fatherhood's rarely explored passion."
Los Angeles Times
"Patchett writes with remarkable conviction and attention to telling detail... [She] is excellent at portraying the steady love and interest that holds the family members together, even though that love and interest isn't always successful in preserving the members from danger."
"Absorbing . . . Strikingly original."
"Taft is a moving, dangerous book about love and despair and hope. Ann Patchett gives us fantastic yet believable characters that will stay alive long after the last page is turned. She is a wonderful, intelligent writer."
"In her picture of Nickel, Patchett combines a rare sensitivity to issues of race with the unswerving knowledge that deeper than skin color is the essential soul of a good man who wants to repair the damage he has done."
The New Orleans TimesPicayune
"Compassionate and deeply moving."