Reading Group Guide
The Night Gwen Stacy Died
By Sarah Bruni
Sheila Gower is seventeen, more comfortable confiding in a taxidermic coyote at the Natural History Museum than in her one high school friend or her loving but diametrically opposed family. She practices her French while she works at a small-town Iowa gas station, saving her money for a move to Paris, hanging on loosely to the edges of a life from which she feels increasingly disconnected.
Enter Seth Novak, a mysterious taxi driver who calls himself Peter Parker. His good looks and oddball manner intrigue Sheila enough that she jumps at the chance when he asks if she wants to get the hell out. They stage their escape as an abduction—gun, robbery, kidnapping—but soon their adventure turns into a surreal love story. Playing fast and loose with the boundaries of reality, Peter invites Sheila into his tragic, heroic fantasies and begins calling her “Gwen Stacy” after Spider-Man’s first love; she goes along with it, eager to take on a new identity to match her new life.
However, even their romantic bubble can’t protect the duo from the ever-widening manhunt for Sheila and her presumed kidnapper, nor can it shelter them from the strange doom Peter has been dreaming of for weeks. When Sheila unexpectedly collides with Peter’s past on a dark night, their bubble bursts, their uncertain future rushing in like the quickly unfolding frames of a comic book, threatening destruction and salvation for both.
1. The novel opens with observations about the frequency with which people are sighting wild animals, particularly coyotes and cougars, in neighborhoods and towns where they should not be. This theme — of things being out of place or the shaping of an alternate reality — repeats throughout the novel. What does it mean? How does the concept of wild animals appearing in Iowa and Chicago relate to the role of Sheila’s stuffed coyote, frozen in its “natural” habitat? How does it relate to Patch, Jake’s “dog”?
2. Discuss what Paris and her planned move to France mean to Sheila. Why do you think her parents and sister are so threatened by her attempts at learning French? What makes her French teacher, Ms. Lawrence, seem so different from other people in her life?
3. What does Sheila like and dislike about working at the Sinclair gas station? What concerns her father about the job?
4. Describe Sheila’s relationship with her parents and her sister. Do you think she would say she loves her family? Do they seem to care about her? Imagine the events of the novel from their perspective: What do you think they would say about Sheila, her dreams, her actions?
5. Sheila rides a bike nearly everywhere she goes while living in Iowa. Why? Discuss how the bike does or does not fit in with Sheila’s hometown and lifestyle. What other symbols appear in the novel to underscore Sheila’s inability (or unwillingness) to fit in?
6. Throughout the novel are illustrations of how we form preconceived notions and pass judgment while knowing very little about a person or situation. For example, Sheila describes how the women customers at the gas station treat her differently when they believe she is a student on her way to study in Paris. Identify other examples of characters who make such judgments and discuss what the author may be saying through these.
7. On page 41, when Sheila tells Peter Parker that she thinks his ID is a fake, he counters by saying, “You’re a fake.” What do you think he means? Do you agree or disagree? Explain your opinion using examples from the novel.
8. Soon thereafter, Sheila has a maudlin moment in which, she says, “she was sorry for everything.” For what, exactly, is she sorry? What triggers this regret and sorrow? At the end of the book, do you think Sheila is more or less sorry than she is at this moment on page 42?
9. Ms. Lawrence tells Sheila “sometimes our expectations of a thing create a kind of unreality” (p. 50). What does she mean by this? Discuss how this idea relates to the following scene, in which Peter first calls Sheila “Gwen” and they stage her abduction. How else does this concept apply to the events of the novel?
10. Sheila and Peter both have a tendency to compartmentalize parts of their lives. How does this express itself in the novel? What makes up the different parts and what makes them so disparate?
11. After she’s dreamed about moving to Paris for so long, what thrills Sheila about Chicago? Describe how she begins to take control of her life there, ironically under the least stable of circumstances. When does Sheila realize she is never going to Paris? How does she feel about this realization?
12. On page 101, Sheila tells herself, “It was all a matter of deciding how to interpret information.” How does she decide to interpret Peter’s confession about his reasons for taking her with him to Chicago? Identify some other moments that present themselves for our protagonists to interpret. What do you think of their interpretations?
13. Something shifts for Sheila and Peter the night they go walking by the foundry. What and why? What line does Peter fear they have crossed? What finally prompts Peter to take himself to task for their game and for calling Sheila “Gwen”?
14. Peter first decides to invite Sheila to run away with him because he saw them driving off together in a dream. What other dreams does Peter have that come true? Were you convinced that his dreams were in fact portents? Why or why not? Given his family history, what did you make of his dreaming “abilities” at first? How did your opinion change during your reading, or didn’t it?
15. When did you first suspect that Novak was the man in Peter’s dream, the one he and Gwen were supposed to save? When did you begin to suspect that Novak was in fact Jake, Peter’s brother?
16. In this novel, the author presents the idea that coyotes are not just wild animals or predators, but are also messengers between worlds. What role do they play in Sheila’s life, and what message do they share with her in the end? How do they influence the conclusion of the novel?
17. This novel is, in many ways, a layer cake of stories within stories. The most obvious of this, of course, is the reference to Spider-Man’s Peter Parker and his first love, Gwen Stacy, and the tragic end she meets during a conflict with the Green Goblin. Identify some of the stories the author weaves together in this novel, and analyze the meaning of the title, The Night Gwen Stacy Died, and its relevance to these stories as you experienced them.
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