After reading Small Change, discuss the role that the epigraphs from Noel Coward and Toni Morrison play in acting as road maps through the terrain that Small Change explores. You might want to discuss, for example, whether the epigraph from Noel Coward is or is not an adequate description of Beth. The quote from Toni Morrison seems to suggest that a degree of play-acting is necessary to create the right kind of impression in conducting our relationships. Discuss the search for a balance between honesty and self-protection in the friendships portrayed in the book.
Look at the stories that focus on Beth’s intense friendship with Maureen, including “The Friend” and “Cézanne in a Soft Hat,” and compare them with stories that chronicle other friendships – with Carol in “The Fight,” Leonard in “Sayonara,” and Leah in “Purge Me with Hyssop” – and compare the differences in Beth’s connections with each of these characters. What does Beth expect from friendship? How aware is she of her own failings as a friend?
Beth’s friendship with Maureen is the most fully described of her adult friendships, but her attitudes to friendship grow out of her own childhood experiences. Compare the Maureen stories with Beth’s recounting of her daughter’s difficult friendship with Joyce in “Hand Games.”
One of Beth’s issues with Maureen is her passivity – Maureen, for example, stays with her painter husband, Danny, even after he is clearly unfaithful to her and, even more disturbing, risks her own life by sleeping with him after she suspects he is HIV-positive. What does Beth see in herself that makes her react so strongly to Maureen’s passivity? What does she learn about passivity? And about herself?
Hay’s fictions have a very visual feel to them and she has commented in interviews that she’s a great admirer of the Canadian painter David Milne. In “Cézanne and the Soft Hat,” she examines the landscapes of the French Post-Impressionist painter in describing the breakdown of his friendship with writer Emile Zola. Look at how Hay describes landscape in this story and discuss the connections that she makes between the detachment of the painter and the detachment of the writer.
Beth is a writer who clearly is reworking episodes in her own life into her fiction. Hay said in an interview in the Ottawa Citizen that the “starting points for these stories are autobiographical, and the course they take is fictional.” Does the absence of disguise – of an obvious fictional cover – make the stories more compelling?
In “Makeup,” Beth describes herself as “an emotional bag lady dragging along old friendships, old failings, old makeup and using them to keep myself warm in a shabby sort of way.” Does this gathering to herself of old sorrows make her a more or less appealing character?
Small Change is structured as a series of linked stories, beginning with the Maureen stories and returning to Maureen in the end. How does the circular and overlapping structure of the book contribute to the underlying theme of friendship revisited.
Beth suggests in “Cézanne in a Soft Hat” that men’s friendships with other men are less inclined to be so emotionally fraught as are friendships between women. “They don’t brood so luxuriously about friendships gone wrong.” Discuss.
In the stories “January Through March” and “Several Losses,” Beth looks at the patterns that exist in her friendships and compares them to the seasons. At the end of “Several Losses,” Beth asks herself what she has learned and replies, “That I have arrived at middle distance in middle age with not necessarily fewer friends or better friends, but with an overwhelming desire for peaceful friends. And that all of this is temporary, and yet always the same.” Discuss the kind of release Beth finds in viewing her friendships and herself as part of the shifting fabric of the physical world.
In “A Personal Letter” a character says, “Children don’t appreciate what we come to value so much as adults: consistency in our relationships.” Discuss the undercurrent of longing for something more fulfilling among the characters in these stories.
The Malahat Review‘s Robert Finley wrote about Small Change that “Hay brings together in her fourth book the revelatory power of narrative, the analytical possibilities of the personal essay and memoir, the investigative discipline of journalism, and the sudden illumination of lyric, and as a result she seems able to pick up everything – everything said, and most of what is only whispered in a gesture or a look between friends.” Discuss how you see Hay using different literary genres to explore the concept of friendship.
Compare Hay’s idea of friendship with that of other writers. You might want to look at Alice Munro’s short story collection Friend of My Youth, for example.
Discuss the style of Hay’s writing. It has been described as both poetic and economical in its attention to the details of emotion and landscape. Is it part of a writer’s job to find words for things that are difficult to talk about?