Reading Group Guide
By Clare Clark
1. Why do you think the author chose to open the story with a misdirect—in particular, a charade? What effect did this have on your reading experience? How does it set the tone for the story to come?
2. Initially, for what reasons did you suspect Maribel never spoke of or contacted her family? What were you able to piece together as the novel progressed? Why do you think she sent her mother her address in London and told her about her marriage to Edward?
3. Maribel’s London is increasingly in turmoil, with political upset driving nearly every conversation. On page 11, the author writes that, as a politician’s wife, Maribel was able to keep pace with the rest of them and make a fine argument herself, “But for all that, she couldn’t help resenting it, just a little.” What does this insight tell you about Maribel? Does your opinion of her change throughout the novel? Why or why not?
4. Mrs. Bryant, we learn, used to tell Maribel that she was histrionic, while Maribel felt that if she didn’t leave home she would suffocate. Edith, the sister for whom Maribel never spared a thought, is thrilled to see her and seems crushed at the thought of never seeing her again. And yet Ida, the sister Maribel imagines will understand her journey and forgive her mistakes, the only family member she seems to care for, flat out rejects her and insists she stay out of her life forever. Discuss how truth can be shaped by perception and will and how the characters in this novel, Maribel in particular, experience this chimerical reality.
5. Why doesn’t Maribel believe in spirits or séances? What compels Charlotte to disagree and pursue the possibility? Given her skepticism, why do you think the so-called “spirit photograph” Maribel takes of Charlotte disturbs her so much? Why does she so steadfastly refuse to let Mr. Pigeon examine it? Discuss the role of spiritualism in the novel and the arguments made for and against its authenticity.
6. After several aborted attempts to contact Ida, Maribel decides to let go of her need to see her sister until she can present herself as “the best possible version of herself that she had left home for, the version of herself for which she had risked everything.” (p. 164) What do you think she means by this? What is it about her current status that she finds lacking? By the end of the story, do you think Maribel has achieved that “best possible version?” Why or why not?
7. At first, Maribel finds herself increasingly attracted to Mr. Webster. She admires his passion for truth and his willingness to use his position as newspaper editor to sway public opinion and influence political decisions. Edward, on the other hand, distrusts and dislikes Webster from the start. Identify the various turning points in the relationship between the Campbell Lowes and Mr. Webster. In what ways do their opinions change?
8. Early in the novel, it’s plain that Maribel doesn’t want her family to contact her in any way for fear of the scandal they might cause her and Edward. Discuss the irony of Ida’s reaction when she discovers Maribel waiting in her kitchen. Do you feel any sympathy for Maribel? Why or why not?
9. Several times in the novel, various characters express the sentiment that, “When there is nothing that can be done, and the knowledge that there is nothing that can be done is too much to bear, it is always better to do something.” How do the characters of Beautiful Lies prove this to be true? Who do you think would disagree with this concept and why?
10. Why won’t the nun at the convent in Meiriz tell Maribel anything about her son? Discuss the significance of the metaphor she offers instead: “If she lights this tinderbox she will see only the pretty flames. It will be her husband who must afterwards sift through the charred remains. He and the boy.” Discuss how this metaphor might apply to other situations in the novel.
11. Maribel and other Victorian photographers struggle to be recognized as artists in a world where general opinion holds that a camera captures only fact—that “art” is not part of the equation. It is this same belief, shared by the spiritualists Mr. Webster supports, that ultimately undoes him. How else is truth manipulated for personal ends in Beautiful Lies? Identify celebrities sex tapes elements of the story that lend themselves as evidence one way or the other in the argument about the camera’s ability to capture only the reality before it.
12. When Edward suggests Maribel take another round of photographs of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Indians, she declines, calling them “players in a flagrantly fictionalized version of their lives,” to which Edward replies, “Aren’t we all?” (p.475) Explain what he means by this. Do you agree or disagree, and why? Is anyone in the novel just what they appear to be?
13. Mr. Webster protests against “the indefensible muzzling of the press by the Establishment.” Distasteful though he may be, what wrongs has Mr. Webster really committed? Do you think he deserved his fate? Why or why not?
14. It is often said that history repeats itself. In her Author’s Note, Clare Clark draws several parallels between England in 1887 and England in 2012. Similar comparisons might be made between the novel’s events and socio-political climate and the United States today. Discuss these similarities. How have things changed, and how have they remained the same?
15. Throughout the novel, the question of truth’s relationship to beauty pops up in quotations (including the novel’s epigraph) and in conversation between characters. What do you think: Are truth and beauty one and the same, in the end? Is there a kind of truth to be found in beautiful lies? What makes a lie beautiful or ugly? Discuss the meaning of the book’s title, “Beautiful Lies” and its relation to the work itself.