About the book:
In 1997, at the distinguished Siddons School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the school year opens with distressing news: Astra Dell is suffering from a rare disease. Astra’s friends try to reconcile the girl’s suffering with their own fierce longings and impetuous attachments. Car writes unsparing letters, which the dirty Marlene, in her devotion, then steals. Other classmates carry on: the silly team of Suki and Alex pursue Will Bliss while the subversive Lisa Van de Ven makes dates with MissWilkes. The world of private schools and privilege in New York City is funny, poignant, and cruel, and at its heart is the stricken Astra Dell, "that pale girl from the senior class, the dancer with all the hair, the red hair, knotted or braided or let to fall to her waist, a fever and she consumed."
National Book Award finalist Christine Schutt has created a wickedly original tale of innocence, daring, and illness.
About the author: CHRISTINE SCHUTT is the author of two short story collections—A Day, a Night, Another Day, Summer and Nightwork—as well as the novel Florida, a 2004 National Book Award finalist. Schutt lives and teaches in New York City.
Click here to download the reading guide for All Souls.
1. Instead of traditional chapters, this novel is structured by thematic sections, each further divided into smaller sections generally tied to a specific character or set of characters. How does the structure of the novel reflect the story itself? Discuss how the section titles reflect or illuminate the content contained therein.
2. Regardless of age or station, it seems that everyone still wants to be liked. Which characters in All Souls stand out as wanting to be favorites, and whom do they wish to have the affection of? What sort of things do these characters do to get that affection? Does it work? Why or why not?
3. Adolescence is often marred by the presence of bullies. Who are the bullies at Siddons? Which other characters are also bullies? Describe their behavior and the affect they have on their targets.
4. Lisa Van de Ven says that there is always one girl in the class who everyone hates, and for the class of 1997 that girl is Marlene Kovack. In what ways does Marlene change over the course of the novel? Why does she change? How does she respond to Astra’s homecoming?
5. Describe the different models of fatherhood and motherhood featured in the novel. What impact does the behavior of the parents have on their children?
6. Many bits of information, some subtle and some not, are dropped about Car and her father. Why do you think they have not seen each other for an entire year? What is the real reason that Car stays in his apartment while he’s away?
7. Discuss how sexuality is expressed at Siddons. What role do the men play as minority members in a world of women? Do you think a role reversal is going on? Use examples from the novel to support your opinion.
8. Car and Marlene are Astra’s best friends, but one is acknowledged while the other is self-appointed. How are these two girls alike? How are they different? Compare and contrast the nature of each girl’s relationship with Astra. Why are they so attached to her?
9. Several of the girls are upset that other girls who barely know Astra are wandering the halls in tears over her illness. In what ways is Astra used by the characters in this novel? How do you feel about the characters who use her? Are you sympathetic to their needs? How is she used by the author?
10. As in real life, money and class divide the girls at Siddons, and sometimes the adults, too. How does money affect the relationships in the novel?
11. During various coffee meetings, the Siddons mothers discuss the epidemic of eating disorders plaguing girls at rival schools. What role does food and eating play in this novel? Consider Car and her mother and Astra and her cancer in particular.
12. The halls of Siddons are haunted by lonely girls and women. Identify the characters who suffer most from feelings of isolation. How do they respond to the kindness of others? Do they ultimately find relief? Why or why not?
13. Car writes to Astra, “People make the most impact on the lives of others by being absent.” To whom is she referring? Do you agree or disagree with her statement? Use examples from the novel to support your opinion.
14. On page 212, Marlene writes in her journal, “I hope that years from now you won’t look at this journal and skim it like a dream and laugh and read lines out loud to others. Remember it wasn’t about the grades . . . live that way always, it’s so much more worth it. Remember the days in the lounge, the music, the classes. I hope the girl I love now is not one of those fake people. I hope her magic lasts because of her humanity. I hope I wasn’t in love with an idea.” What is Marlene writing about? How do her observations relate to what the other characters in the novel experience?