Reading Guide for A Student of Weather

Discussions Questions

  1. Throughout the novel, Hay draws parallels between weather and love. Both are unpredictable, changeable, and have the potential for extremes. How does the love affair between Norma Joyce and Maurice reflect these qualities?
  2. By making numerous references to fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty, Hay suggests that there’s an element of enchantment and fatefulness in Norma Joyce’s obsession with Maurice. How is their love affair like that traditional tale? In what ways is it a reversal of our expectations?
  3. Hay writes that “Lucinda sews and dark hairs appear on Norma Joyce. In the morning she looks at herself and feels sewn inside out, threads left hanging by a clumsy child or an ill-intentioned adult” [pp3-4]. How is Norma Joyce’s feeling of being a misfit connected to her sister?
  4. In exploring the relationship between Lucinda and Norma Joyce, Hay refers to biblical stories of sibling rivalry and betrayal, particularly the story of Jacob tricking his father and stealing the blessing intended for his older brother, Esau. In what way do the dynamics between the Hardy sisters resemble that story?
  5. When Maurice first appears, in the midst of a snowstorm, he notices Lucinda first, but Norma Joyce surprises him by touching his cheek where it’s been frostbitten, and “she has the triumph of having surprised him into noticing her” [p6]. How does this incident prefigure the sisters’ different ways of seeking his attention?
  6. Hay writes of Norma Joyce’s sneakiness as a child, that, “By hiding things, then leaving herself open to being caught, she lends a certain drama to everything she does. A certain drama and a certain innocence” [p29]. How does Norma Joyce’s concealment of Maurice’s letters differ from these earlier transgressions?
  7. The stealing of the letters is a major turning point in the story, because it changes the course of events and has lasting repercussions. What are other significant turning points in the narrative?
  8. The third-person narration is mostly governed by Norma Joyce’s point of view, and gives insight into her thoughts and feelings. However, a number of passages are seen through Lucinda’s eyes, for instance, when she has her breakdown after Maurice fails to show for her birthday, and she describes “the way disappointment narrowed her world to an isolated ledge on which she sat” [p116]. Later in the book, when she hears of Maurice’s return to Ottawa, and debates with Ernest how to tell Norma Joyce, we know her thoughts – “It’s the end of my world, she said” [p225], and again, before her accident [pp233-8]. How do these changes in narrative perspective affect our understanding and view of Lucinda?
  9. The love triangle between Norma Joyce, Lucinda, and Maurice sets the story’s events in motion, and its effects are felt for many years afterward. But rivalry also plays a part in the relationships between Norma Joyce, Lucinda, and their father, Ernest; and between the sisters and Norma Joyce’s son, Johnny. How similar are the dynamics in these three sets of relationships? How are they different?
  10. Hay makes references to a number of tragic heroines in literature, including Marie Chapdelaine, Madame Butterfly, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. In all of these cases, a fateful passion leads to a woman’s destruction. How does Norma Joyce differ from these other literary figures?
  11. Though Norma Joyce and Lucinda both make much of the differences between them, in fact there are also a number of important similarities that emerge over the course of time. Maurice points out to Norma Joyce that she and her sister both “liked to play your cards close to your chest. Neither one of you laughed much” [p260]. What other traits do they share?
  12. Part of the novel’s power is in Hay’s vivid descriptions of place, which are both evocative and establish a mood. For instance, she describes the Hardys’ neighbourhood in Ottawa as “These big brick houses. These rows of fine, stable, red-brick houses shaded by trees tossing their golden leaves on ground already blessed with flowers and hedges and lawns, the flowers like small trumpets or curly wigs, the hedges as tough as old lace, the lawns as warm in the sun as an old dog” [p121]. This suggests the lushness and settled, prosperous order of Ontario, as compared to the Prairies’ parched dryness and extremes. Can you think of other descriptive passages of a landscape reflective of a particular mood or quality?
  13. Hay uses the repetition of motifs to establish a connection between characters. For instance, Norma Joyce puts her hand on the coin of frostbite on Maurice’s cheek [p6]; many years later, she touches infant Johnny’s cheek, with its circle of frostbite [p214]. Elsewhere, Lucinda dreams of looking out two windows in a room and seeing a garden in bloom and also buried under snow [p13]. Later, when Norma Joyce realizes that Maurice has lost his feelings for her, after she reveals that she’s pregnant, she reflects that “you can pass from summer to winter in someone’s mind without ever leaving the room” [p172]. Can you think of other motifs or symbols that recur, and show a link between characters?
  14. In Norma Joyce’s work as a window-dresser, she displays her artistic flair by setting “the overlooked beside the prized” [p217]. Lucinda regards these windows as “a form of magic . . . Even Norma Joyce called them her Cinderella windows” [p219] because they involve transformation, as fairy tales do. Later she becomes “a painter of tiny landscapes and tinier still lifes in wild, gargantuan, abstract expressionist New York” [p247]. How is transformation a key element in these manifestations of her creativity? How do these artworks relate to her childhood collection of stray objects in the corner of her mother’s study?
  15. When Norma Joyce returns to Ottawa to care for Ernest, she recognizes in herself a need for his approval, which she seeks by doing the tasks that Lucinda used to do for him, such as keeping house and baking apple pie. Her hopes are raised, and then bitterly dashed, with his last words. In what way is this pattern like that of her relationship with Maurice?
  16. Maurice’s mother is fiercely protective of him, and tries to shield him from Norma Joyce. Shortly after Johnny’s birth, when Mrs. Dove visits “not to claim, but disown” the baby [p209], Norma Joyce wonders “would she ever . . . protect her son as assiduously as Mrs. Dove protected Maurice?” [p210] Later, Maurice suggests taking Johnny to England with him, and Norma Joyce rejects the possibility without discussing it with her son. Is this a similar protectiveness? Is it justified?
  17. When Ernest challenges Maurice on his view that things work out in the end, in the weather and in history, Maurice responds that there’s “not fairness, maybe, but balance. Things go in and out of balance. That’s what weather is all about” [p69]. Given that weather is used as a metaphor for love in the novel, is there a “balance” that Norma Joyce achieves in her attitude toward her loved ones?
  18. Late in the book, Maurice reveals that Lucinda had warned the Doves that Norma Joyce was untrustworthy, secretly undermining her. Norma Joyce reflects that “Knowledge is always surprising and always useful. It never wears out” [p327]. What use does Norma Joyce make of this knowledge?
  19. When Norma Joyce complains about Ernest’s lack of care for her mother’s paintings, Mrs. Gallot comments, “Well, people are careless, even with things that matter to them. Sometimes most careless with the things that matter most” [p300]. Can you think of incidents in which this is manifested?
  20. In one passage about the weather, Hay writes that ” . . .what’s at play are the forces of attraction and repulsion, in other words, of love. Hot meets cold, and what follows is wind, rain, sap and dew. The sharper the contrast the more there is to see” [p66-7]. In fact, Hay uses contrast and conflict to heighten the dramatic impact of her story. Apart from the central opposition between the sisters, what are other examples of contrast and conflict?
  21. When Norma Joyce revisits her childhood home, late in the book, she compares her unrequited love affair with Maurice with “the larger one between Saskatchewan and Ontario. Saskatchewan so bitter, tenacious, aware. Ontario so careless and immune. An affair between two landscapes and two histories no less real, and no less ongoing than are certain romances between people” [p350]. In what ways does the relationship between the provinces match this description?