Playing Reader’s Guide

  1. Toward the end of the novel Josie thinks, “But there was no new Josie. There was only the one that had always been, and this self held many selves, the little girl and the big girl and all the others in between, each snuggled inside the next like Russian nesting dolls.” (p. 263) Using this quote as a springboard, discuss the importance of self and self-knowledge in the novel. How well does Josie know herself, and how much of her self-image is defined by others, especially her mother?
  2. Continue your discussion of this point by focusing on Josie’s relationship with her mother, Carol. How far do we get to see Carol as an individual, rather than as Josie’s mother, depicted through the prism of Josie’s guilt? Is it significant that she is rarely referred to as Carol, instead we see her as “your mother” or “Josie’s mother.” Despite Josie’s refusal to “be beholden to her mother any longer” (p. 10), she accepts the nanny position precisely because Mary reminds her of her mother—she had “chosen Mary because she would make Josie ache” (p. 239). Consider the implications of this. What does it mean to be beholden to someone? Talk about what it means for Josie.
  3. Compare and contrast the ways in which Mary and Josie’s mother are similar, different. Is Josie’s relationship with Mary destined to turn sour given Josie’s identification with her as a mother-figure? Can Josie’s reflections upon her relationship with Mary be applied to that with her mother too—“Everything had happened as it should” (p. 239). When Mary says “Look, Josie. It’s ending this way… But it doesn’t undo how it was. I… I’m glad you were here” (p. 240). Is this something that Josie’s mother might have said, or Josie wishes she might have?
  4. “The way Tyler felt against Josie’s side—firm and unwavering—made Josie believe that perhaps she had found something good and solid” (p. 7). Explore the ways in which Tyler represents the different sides of Josie’s psyche, and discuss why she identifies with him. He is the child less-favored by his mother, the brother she could have had, the child she once was, the confused adult she is now. Why do you think so many of her identities reside in him? Consider his obsession with factual details – “the emotionless hum of his numbers” (p. 4) and the way this mirrors Josie’s attempts to block out emotions or memories.
  5. The theme of play manifests itself in different ways throughout the novel. Analyze the ways in which characters play different roles—mother, daughter, lover. Consider how Josie, as a child, thought of herself as “doing a job, pretending to be her parents’ daughter, holding Matthew’s place until he one day returned” (p. 108). How far do you think Josie is playing a role as the guilty daughter? What happens when we lose the distinction between the roles we play and the person we truly are—to what extent does this happen to Josie? Discuss the jealousy that Mary feels as Josie takes on the role of mother to Tyler and Maddy. Consider the irony of Mary viewing Josie as Little Miss Perfect.
  6. Central to the theme of play, and to the novel, is Josie’s sexual relationship with Devesh. Were you in any way shocked or surprised by their relationship? Talk about the contrast between the violence of their play and the tenderness of their love for each other. Discuss the subtle difference, as defined by Devesh, between discipline and punishment. How far would you agree that for Devesh “the games they created were just games, made up out of nothing, just to play with” (p. 107) whereas for Josie they grow out of “a dark thing,” “an inner stain” (p. 107).
  7. Look at the ways in which Josie’s intense sexual games start to move from the realm of play into reality. Consider the reasons for this, and discuss the reasons that she, unlike Devesh, “can’t leave it in the bedroom” (p. 106). Are the games ever play for her? Talk about her need to punish Tyler for his slight disobediences, and look at the way in which this urge to punish and forgive, to shame and feel shame plays out over and over again in her life. Analyze the different roles she plays—as both giver and taker of punishment. Why?
  8. What does Devesh represent to Josie? Consider her belief that “with Devesh she felt simultaneously idolized and truly seen” (p. 123), and how far you would agree with her? Compare her open relationship with Devesh to the secretive one she maintains with her mother? Is she completely truthful with Devesh? If not, at what point does she start to turn within, and away from him? Why?
  9. How does Devesh’s Indian heritage shape him as a character and in his relationship with Josie? Are there fundamental differences in beliefs and attitudes based on their cultural differences? How do these help or hinder them in terms of their relationship?
  10. Consider the role of Phillip and his daughter, Katie. To what extent is Josie playing another role when she enters their life in Atlanta? What profound realization occurs while she is there? Why is it ironic when she states to Phillip “I can’t do this anymore” (p. 263).
  11. Josie is seeking forgiveness from her mother, a forgiveness that never comes, and which leads to her cycles of feeling shame and craving punishment. Consider again her relationship with Devesh, and talk about whether she is really hoping for forgiveness or acceptance from her mother. To what extent do you believe her mother is aware of four-year-old Josie’s view of events surrounding Matthew’s death? Do you think she believes that Josie was responsible for her brother’s death? What difference does it make to Josie? Look at instances where her mother shames her, or confronts her about her choices in life (“I’m just asking you to think about what you’re doing (p. 49). Are there moments where her mother reaches out to her and Josie rejects her? How far is Josie only able to view her mother in relation to her own feelings of guilt?
  12. At the beginning of the novel, Josie’s graduate studies of Ghanian burial rituals seem far removed from her everyday life. However, as the events of her childhood become clear, her choice of study makes sense. Reread the scene in which Josie buries a red cardinal with Tyler (p. 83) and discuss the stark difference between her conversation with Tyler and her inner thoughts. Why do you think she feels uncertain about funeral rites as a prop for those left behind? What does she mean by: “She was still who she was, twisting out from that moment like a spiraling helix” (p. 214).
  13. When Josie goes to sleepaway camp for the first time she has a dream that will recur throughout her life, a dream about her body splitting into two and then colliding back together. What is the significance of this image?
  14. Josie’s mother’s death acts as a catalyst in the novel that allows Josie to make some important realizations. Analyze the ways in which it enables her to speak about the past, and to accept what happened, and, most importantly, to accept who she is. What does she figure out about her relationship with Devesh, and why?
  15. Talk about Josie’s relationship with her father, so undermined by the looming presence of her mother. Why is she able to speak to him about her role in Matthew’s death? Is it because her mother is dead and her forgiveness is no longer available or sought after? Is it more a convergence of circumstances, or something else? Discuss the scene in which she makes her apology and receives her father’s forgiveness. Did you feel that Josie had found the absolution she was searching for and would now be able to move forward with her life?
  16. Consider the ways in which Josie has been shaped by her parents, especially her mother, and the ways in which she carries this into her adult life. Look at Mary’s relationship with her children, and discuss the ways in which she supports them, damages them. Is it inevitable? Talk about parenting in the novel in general.
  17. In going through her mother’s personal belongings after her death, Josie is made aware of “a life more complex than just the disgust that Josie now realized was only one aspect of her mother, not the vastly complicated layers of a whole person, an entire universe” (p. 271). Through this understanding of her own skewed perception of her mother’s life, what is she finally able to understand about her mother, and herself?
  18. How far would you agree with the statement that “the world was causal, but it was also messy, cryptic” (p. 239). What does the statement mean in the light of the novel? By coming to this understanding, how far has Josie grown throughout the novel, and in which ways?
  19. Explore the reasons behind Josie leaving Devesh. Are they completely clear to her? What is it that changes within her that makes her sure that she can be with him again. How has she grown when she states “she understood that how or why they arrived here didn’t matter, that the cause only flickered in the background like an ember” (p. 283). How do you think their relationship will continue after this? How did Devesh change or grow during the narrative? Conclude your discussion of the novel by imagining what the future might hold for Josie and Devesh.

Books: Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill; Exposure by Kathryn Harrison; Laughable Loves by Milan Kundera; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan; God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy; The Little Friend by Donna Tart; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon; Story of O by Pauline Reage; Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch; A Defense of Masochism by Anita Phillips

Film: Secretary.