Reading Guide for Garbo Laughs

Discussion Questions

  1. Among other things, this novel gives us the story of a marriage. How does that story develop over the course of the novel? What does this particular story of a marriage say to you about the romance and challenges of marriage more generally?
  2. Characters in a novel are created by the author not only as separate individuals, but also in support both of the characterization of others within the full cast of characters and of the novel’s themes. What are for you the most telling details in the characterization of Lew? Think about this question both in terms of what is most vivid–what brings him to life–and what is most important for the novel. What does Elizabeth Hay achieve for the novel as a whole (its themes, tone, etc.) by imagining this particular man as Harriet’s husband? For example, what does his profession add to the novel? Why does Hay choose to distance Lew from the obsession with movies? Did you fall in love with him?
  3. Harriet says that she has “no sense of humour” [p 10]–is that true? In what scenes, and to what ends, does the author develop this question? How might the question of Harriet’s humour (or lack of it) relate to Lew’s characterization of her as living “halfway between the one extreme of lentil-fed sadness and the other extreme of movie-fed rapture” [p 11]? Why is the novel called Garbo Laughs? Is this book a comedy?
  4. How does the author make the relationship between mother and son–Harriet and Kenny–so extraordinarily moving? What are the most important elements of this relationship and what scenes and details reveal the relationship most effectively? Why does it matter so much to Kenny whether others share his assessment of the merits of one film or one actor over another?
  5. What is Jane’s role in the novel? Does it bother you that she is less central or less vivid than Kenny? What does this tell you about families or about the making of novels?
  6. Harriet says she needs a “sidekick”–and the author provides one in the person of Dinah Bloom. What are Dinah’s functions in the novel? How does her story develop alongside Harriet’s?
  7. What do each of the neighbours contribute to the novel?
  8. How do Leah and Jack function in the novel? What would be lost if they were not associated with Hollywood?
  9. What do the particular films and actors championed by the characters tell you about them? How does the novel’s movie talk work in connection with other matters of importance in the novel?
  10. How do Harriet’s unsent letters to film critic Pauline Kael function within the novel? The author employs as the novel’s epigraph a quotation from Pauline Kael: “We will never know the extent of the damage movies are doing to us.” How are we to take this? Why will we “never know”? How does “the damage” weigh against the positive contributions that movies make to our lives? How do you think Elizabeth Hay would answer this question?
  11. How important is it that Harriet Browning is a writer and a teacher of creative writing? What issues about writing does the novel address, and how does the discussion of writing illuminate the example of writing which is the novel you have read? How does Harriet’s interest in movies connect with her writing and her ideas about writing?
  12. The ice storm is described as “a most beautiful catastrophe” [p 173], and Leah tells Dinah that she “‘could get a book out of this…. I’m serious. You should be taking notes for a novel. You might win a prize and get somewhere’” [p 185]. This suggestion interrupts briefly the “suspended disbelief” which allows us to experience the fictional world as a real world, and points toward the book we are holding in our hands as an object made by a writer. Such gestures in a work of fiction are called “metafictional.” Why does the author choose Leah to supply this metafictional touch?
  13. Photographs of the ice storm, we are told, “wouldn’t do it justice” [p 173]. Is it part of the intention of this novel to capture (and so do some sort of “justice” to) the reality of the great ice storm by presenting it to our imaginations through words? What descriptions of or reflections upon the ice storm are most effective for you? Is it in their returning you to the “real world” of the storm that you feel this power? Or does the power reside in effective interplay with other elements in the novel? Or is it in the mixing of fictional and historical worlds that the ice storm is most potent?
  14. Why might Harriet think that Ottawa is like Brigadoon? We’re given some explanation: for example, she thinks that Ottawa and Havana are both “backwaters” and so “in their different ways … a lot like Brigadoon” [p 8]. What other explanations can you draw from the text as a whole? Why is Havana invoked? What do you think of this characterization of Ottawa? Is it important that Ottawa is the nation’s capital? Is there an implicit contrast to any other place? To what extent is this image of Ottawa as a “safe, protected” place altered by the ice storm? Does the Brigadoon reference tell you anything about Harriet’s consuming interest in movies?
  15. How is the image of the fern developed? Why is “The Fern” the title of the novel’s first section? The second section is called “The Ice Storm,” and the third is called “Spring.” How do these three section titles work together?
  16. Why does Elizabeth Hay include instructions for the making of cappuccino and potato salad in this novel?
  17. A number of events in this novel are threatening in one way or another. Try listing all of them. What kinds of danger do they represent? What issues of innocence and guilt are raised? Which are inevitable, and which could be predicted or avoided?
  18. Did you anticipate the novel’s ending? Or the major events in the latter part of the book? When did you see them coming? Do you think Elizabeth Hay found the right ending for this novel? How does the discussion of the ending of Don Quixote [pp 335-36] bear on the ending of Garbo Laughs?
  19. As you finish the novel, and are leaving Harriet Browning, consider closely once more what you think of her. Did you care about her deeply? What moved you? What interested you most about her? What still puzzles you? What do you think will remain with you?
  20. Choose half a dozen or so of your favourite moments in this novel–scenes, passages, even a single line of dialogue–and prepare yourself to defend their excellence against all comers.