One-Minute Book Reviews

March 2, 2009

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Spare Room’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Spare Room
A Novel by Helen Garner
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

How should we treat terminally ill people who don’t accept that they are dying? Should we support the delusion that they will get better – on the premise that false hope is better than none – or tell the truth? These questions underlie The Spare Room, a prize-winning Australian novel about a friendship between two women in their 60s that is tested when one develops metastatic bowel cancer. After conventional treatments fail, Nicola moves in with Helen for three weeks in order to try the alternative therapies peddled by a sham clinic in Melbourne, including coffee enemas and intravenous vitamin C. At first solicitous, Helen begins to run out of patience as her houseguest’s demands grow. The novel builds toward a confrontation between the two women that raises yet another question: Whether or not Nicola lives, can the women’s friendship survive her illness?

Discussion Questions
All quotations and page numbers below come from the advance reader’s edition and may differ slightly in the finished book. Garner pronounces Nicola’s name NICK-oh-la.

1. Helen Garner says that The Spare Room was inspired by her experience of caring for dying friends. An autobiographical novel has give you something you wouldn’t get from a memoir in order to work. Did The Spare Room do this? What did you get from it that you couldn’t have gotten from a memoir?

2. The title of The Spare Room refers to an unused room converted to a guest room. But it has several other meanings. Who or what is “spare” or “spared” in this book?

3. Garner says that Australians have told her The Spare Room made them “laugh as well as cry.” Did you find parts of this novel funny? Which ones?

4. At first, Helen seems unusually kind. She takes pains to make her spare room comfortable, such as by choosing a pink sheet because Nicola “had a famous feel for color, and pink is flattering even to skin that has turned yellowish.” [Page 1] Later Helen says cruel things to Nicola: “I wait on you hand and foot” [Page 122] and “Can’t you use your brains?” [Page 124] Was this change believable? What made it credible or not credible?

5. Why did Helen work so hard to transform the spare room? Did she do things like choosing a “flattering” sheet just for Nicola’s benefit or because she needed to downplay for herself the reality of her friend’s death?

6. Nicola appears to deny that she is dying. But Liesl Schillinger wrote in a review that “Garner’s narrative makes clear that Iris and Helen are also in denial.” [“A Visit From Death,” The New York Times Book Review, Feb. 15, 2009, page 12.] Do you agree or disagree?

7. Garner depicts relatives of both of her main characters, including Helen’s five-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, Bessie. Do you think she did this to show how different generations view death, to make a point about the women’s ties to their families, or for other reasons?

8. Late in the novel, Helen and Nicola go to a magic show by a German magician [Page 131]. What role does this scene play in the novel? How is the book about the conflict between magic (or illusion) and reality in general? Does the scene relate to an earlier comment by a quack doctor that in Germany many cancer victims live over electromagnetic fields? [Page 31]

9. Two unrelated yardsticks show that The Spare Room is written at fourth-grade (9-year-old) reading level: The Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that come with the spell-checker on Microsoft Word and the online Spache Readbility Formula. Did the novel seem dumbed-down? Why or not?

10. Many American memoirs or semi-autobiographical novels deal with the relationship between the author and someone who is dying. These range from John Gunther’s modern classic about the loss of his teenage son, Death Be Not Proud, to Mitch Albom’s recent Tuesdays With Morrie. How does The Spare Room compare to any you’ve read? What strengths or weaknesses does it have that they didn’t?

Vital Statistics:
The Spare Room: A Novel. By Helen Garner. Holt, 192 pp., $22. Published: February 2009. A review of The Spare Room appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 2, 2009, in the post that directly followed this guide.

About the author: Garner is a novelist and the author of the true-crime books The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation, both bestsellers in her native Australia. Her Wikipedia entry lists some of her awards.

Garner talks about The Spare Room in an audio podcast.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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