Book Club Guide—The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue

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The Wonder novel coverLike her runaway hit Room, Emma Donoghue’s novel The Wonder puts readers in a claustrophobic environment and coaxes them to find their way out. Little action takes place in the O’Donnell family’s two-room cottage, where nurse Lib Wright spends several weeks observing 11-year-old Anna, a girl purported to have survived months without food. Hired by members of the community, Lib’s job is to watch this girl wonder, perhaps to prove that a miracle is truly at work. But seen through Lib’s eyes, the situation seems to be riddled with decoys, mysteries, and puzzling people that are more profane than sacred. The novel will have you guessing along with nurse Lib, who can’t help but want to do more for Anna than watch her live or die. The story pits spiritual against secular, English against Irish, nurse against patient, parents against children. Once you find your way out of this chamber of secrets, you won’t soon forget what you learned.

What’s in a Name:

Lib has a number of names in the novel: “Lib,” “Mrs. Wright,” “Elizabeth,” and “Eliza.” Who calls her by these different names, and what does each name represent in terms of her identity?

Why doesn’t Lib reveal her name to Anna when she first asks? Why does Lib choose to reveal her name to Anna, and how does it signify a change in their relationship?

Family Entanglements:

Why is Lib estranged from her sister?

In chapter 3, “Fast,” Lib reveals to Anna that she has no family and then reflects on what that means: “In childhood, Lib remembered, family seemed as necessary and inescapable as a ring of mountains. Once never imagined that as the decades went by, one might drift into an unbounded country. It struck Lib now how alone in the world she was.” How does Lib’s own family situation affect her feelings toward Anna at the beginning of her watch? And then in her decision to take action at the end?

What are the motives of Anna’s mother and father? Why do you think they make the choices they do?

Religious Differences:

What is Lib’s attitude toward religion? When she tells William Byrne that science is “all we can rely on,” he asks if personal experiences influenced her opinion. Is he right? Which experiences might have led to her views on religion and the church?

What differences does the novel highlight between Catholicism and Protestantism? According to the novel, how can the Catholic faith get skewed by its practitioners?

What assumptions about God, religion, and Catholicism does Lib bring with her to this job? What does Lib learn about religion and faith during her time there?

Guilty Parties:

Lib is guilty of misunderstanding many of her experiences—for instance, the prayer she comes to call “the Dorothy prayer.” What else does she misunderstand? And why? How does her experience as the watchful nurse mirror our experience as the reader?

While reading, what guesses did you make about Anna and the nature of her fast? As the novel progresses, how does Donoghue guide and influence our impressions of Anna and her situation?

As an English nurse visiting Ireland for the first time, Lib’s views of the Irish represent real stereotypes about the Irish widely propagated at the time. For instance, Lib tells journalist William Byrne that “‘It does sometimes seem as if the nineteenth century hasn’t reached this part of the world yet. . . . Milk for the fairies, wax discs to ward off fire and flood, girls living on air . . . Is there nothing the Irish won’t swallow?'” What assumptions does Lib make about Irish people? About Catholics? About Anna and her family? How do those assumptions prevent her from discovering the truth?

Lib worries that her watch is actually killing Anna—perhaps preventing her from sneaking food. “‘Haven’t we pinned her like a butterfly?'” she asks Sister Michael. How much is Lib culpable for Anna’s situation worsening rather than improving?

William Byrne teaches Lib about Ireland and its landscape, explaining the road that seems to go nowhere and the bogs that keep things in a “remarkable state of preservation.” How are these fitting metaphors for both Lib’s situation and Anna’s?

Medicine and Miracles:

Why does the Irish community see in Anna? What kind of miracle do they hope she represents?

Lib comes to realize that “Anna’s body was a blank page that recorded everything that happened to it.” What symptoms reveal that Anna’s fast is killing her? Why do her parents, the local doctors, the priest, and the community ignore these symptoms of a physical illness? What do they choose to see, and why?

What does Lib believe are her duties as a nurse? How does she her role differently than Sister Michael? What has Lib learned from her mentor, Florence Nightingale? What do we learn in the story of Nightingale purchasing the spoons?

What is “the wonder”? Once everything is said and done, is there a “wonder” at all?