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Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer -- Discussion Questions

Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer -- Discussion Questions

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Loosely inspired by Robert Lowell and Flannery O'Connor, this absorbing, charming novel brings us into mid-century New York and the lives and letters of two writers-- their intense friendship, their discussions of writing and art and faith, and their bittersweet romance.
Loosely inspired by Robert Lowell and Flannery O'Connor, this absorbing, charming novel brings us into mid-century New York and the lives and letters of two writers-- their intense friendship, their discussions of writing and art and faith, and their bittersweet romance.

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Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on Feb 18, 2014
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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03/02/2014

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 Frances and Bernard
 by Carlene Bauer What if . . . ? Imagine replaying a possibility. Imagine getting the chance to find love in a moment
that’s been lost
. What if you could take the relationship one step further? Would love bloom? Would the relationship struggle? How honestly could you answer these questions? Drawing on brief encounters
 between Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell
, Carlene Bauer recreates  just this kind of romance and offers a fictional answer to the question, What if their relationship had
continued? Balancing between love’s passionate yearnings and religion’s cautionary advice,
Bauer crafts a fictional yet pragmatic love affair between two of the greatest literary icons of the twentieth century. Questions 1.
 
Authors often quote other authors to create a touchstone that hooks the reader. Bauer quotes Fyodor Dostoevsky
’s
 
The Brothers Karamazov:
 
“So, I have written you a love letter, oh, my God, what have I done!”
 What questions does this quotation cause you to ask? What have you ever done that would spark a similar reaction? 2.
 
In an interview conducted by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Bauer explained why she chose to write
 Frances and Bernard 
 in an epistolary format:
“After a draft using the third person
omniscient, I had the realization that if I wrote the novel in letters, the book would consist of two very strong voices in a struggle and you would feel the struggle more keenly, I hope,
 because of the intimacy of the form.”
 
Do you agree with Bauer’s rationale?
 Are letters more  personal? Explain. 3.
 
While the novel transitions between Frances and Bernard
’s letters
, the author also develops other characters. What do these other letters allow Bauer to create? How would the story have  been different if Bauer had provided only the letters between Frances and Bernard? 4.
 
Bauer’s catalyst for this book
was
a “What if 
 . . .
?” notion.
 Robert Lowell (Bernard) did meet
Flannery O’Connor 
 (Frances)
at a writing conference; however, Bauer’s novel
is fictional except for a few fleeting moments. Bauer has
said she “borro
wed quite a bit of their
temperaments and views.”
 Knowing that these two authors actually met, does the extrapolation of their love story seem more real and plausible? Explain. How much truth did Bauer weave into the letters? Research the life of Lowell an
d O’Connor.
 Are there other moments in their lives that add verisimilitude to the fictional account? 5.
 
After Francis and Bernard meet at a writers’ colony, they each tell
a friend about their impression of the other.
What do you think of Frances’s impression
 of Bernard? What is
Bernard’s first impression of Frances?
 What do these first impressions foreshadow? How important are first impressions? Explain.
 
6.
 
Bernard’s first letter to Frances is short, but he does ask
one profound question:
Who is the Holy Spirit
to you?”
 If you had to pick a topic to discuss with someone you would like to know  better, what topic would you choose? Why? 7.
 
If this situation had occurred today instead of in the 1950s, how might the novel have been different? The same? What significant developments would alter the pace and mood? 8.
 
In one of his early letters Bernard writes,
“In January a man crawls into a cave of hopelessness;
he hallucinates sympathies catching fire. Letters are glaciers, null frigates, trapping us where we are in the mom
ent, unable to carry us on toward truth.”
 What do you think of
Bernard’s
 thought? What paradox is created? How would technology today change this perspective? 9.
 
Bernard and Frances begin an exchange comparing the literature they read as children. What do these titles reveal about them? Compare their lists with what you read as a child. How are the lists different? Why? 10.
 
After seven and a half months, Bernard closes his letter with “Love (may I), Bernard.”
 Is his declaration made too soon? How long does it take Frances to express her love? What do the timing and format of the declarations say about each character? 11.
 
“I can’t even teach! I had to, when I was at Iowa, but I was not very good at hiding my displeasure at mental sleepiness and mediocrity” (39).
 Compare past and present ideas about education, students, and learning. How has education changed? Are students better prepared today? Are students more or less interested in learning? Explain. 12.
 
After a visit to Frances, Bernard writes a short letter with this final line:
“Please do not ever disappear from me” (47).
 
What do you think of Bernard’s plea?
 Is it sincere? Desperate? Explain. 13.
 
Bernard writes,
“I can’t stand mysteries.
 
In the same way I can’t stand science fiction.
 Why
 pretend we’re somewhere else?
 Forensics is a feint. Why distract ourselves from the eternal
questions with set dressing? Salad dressing” (86).
 Do you agree with
Bernard’s assessment
of these types of literature? What type of literature do you think is most rewarding? Why? 14.
 
Bernard tells Francis,
“Your face
says
so much in so little time, you let everything you’re thinking bloom upon your face, and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather watch than you
 pass through five moods in five minutes.
What glorious weather” (8
7). Would you take these comments as a compliment or an insult? Explain. 15.
 
Claire tells Frances she is the “last stanz
a
of Keat’s ode— 
Cold Pastoral
 — 
when you should be lolling around at the first
 — 
Wild Ecstasy
 (121).
Read “
Ode to a Grecian Urn
” by Keats.
 What
do you think of Claire’s
comparison? What is she telling Frances about love? Do you agree? Explain. 16.
 
Why does Frances doubt Bernard’s love for her?
 Is it something about Frances? Is she correct
to be wary about Bernard’s love?
 Explain. 17.
 
How is the theme of unrequited love relevant to the lives of Frances and Bernard? Are there other stories of unrequited love you could compare to
 Frances and Bernard?
 How are they similar? Different? 18.
 
Perhaps nothing is more tragic than a love filled with regret. How is love like this for Frances? For Bernard? Is their inability to finally love each other just a matter of timing, or do you think they were never destined to be together? Explain.

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