Questions for discussion; also see Q&A below.
Author's publisher's blog
Author's hashtag on Twitr
Publisher's guide to Helen Oyeyemi
Guardian review: Helen Oyeyemi plays with myth & fairytale
Washington Post review
Review by Inge Oosterhoff
Laura Miller at Salon
Huffington Post.com : Infinite Reflections: Essay on Themes and Symbols
Story of Snow White
Biography of the author
Picador Book Club reads it... has questions
Reader reviews at LibraryThing
Plot summary on Wikipedia
SPOILERS: Here's someone who reads the ending first! More about the ending here.
Discussion Questions and Answers by Ebescohost.com
The following questions and answers should spark discussion of this book, but are not all there is to say. Readers bring differing viewpoints to the story's characters, events, and what it all means? Sharing those insights is part of what makes book groups so rewarding. Enjoy your discussion starting with these ideas!
What role do mirrors have in the novel?
In the traditional Snow White fairy tale, the wicked queen's preoccupation with the mirror shows that she is vain. However, who is it that speaks to her through the mirror? Oyeyemi's inventive retelling of the Snow White story highlights how much our sense of self depends upon what others see and say about us. A mirror only shows outward appearances no more, no less. Mirrors, however, represent the exterior self that others judge and make assumptions about, despite how little outward appearances may have to do with who that person really is, or how they view themselves. Boy, Snow, and Bird suffer from precisely this issue.
Boy does not recognize her own reflection. She constantly peers in the mirror, "trying to see what Charlie, or Arturo, or Mia, or anyone saw" (p. 40), looking for the blonde beauty that everybody else sees in her. During her pregnancy, she continues feeling alienated: "My reflection changed as I got bigger. . . . [W]hen I looked into the mirror, I couldn't see myself" (p. 127). She adds, "the icy blonde was there, but I couldn't swear to the fact of her being me" (p. 128, emphasis added). Boy's feelings reflect her struggle to see herself in the image of motherhood reflected in the mirror, and projected onto her by society.
Both Snow and Bird share the unnerving experience of having no reflection at times. Bird's missing reflection spotlights how most blacks are invisible to whites. As her grandmother explains, whites often don't consciously register blacks' presence at all they simply don't "see" them (p. 137). The occasional absence of Snow's reflection suggests another type of societal invisibility: in a society that sees everybody as either black or white, she is at once both, yet neither. Mirrors in the novel indicate how others' perceptions shape what characters can and cannot see in themselves.
What does the novel say about beauty?
In most fairy tales, beauty is highly prized as with Snow White's queen, who wants to be "fairest of them all." In Oyeyemi's novel, however, beauty is far less desirable: others' definitions of "beauty" trap and objectify Boy, Snow, and Bird in differing ways. Many envy Boy her blonde beauty. Even her friend Veronica quips, "Must be great being a blonde" (p. 27). However, Boy does not enjoy the attention her looks draw. After Charlie Vacic declares her beautiful, for instance, Charlie and her father both turn to scrutinize her: "They didn't look for long, it was more a practiced series of glances? they knew what they were looking for and seemed to find it. It was a wonder there was anything left by the time they were through looking" (p. 120). Boy experiences their looks as a painful, paring away at her sense of self. They do not see her, but only that which they expect to see (as Arturo also does, initially).
Snow struggles against similar objectification. Snow writes to Bird that she often felt like "a lifeless doll . . . . discarded for another toy that was better, more lifelike" (p. 231), while Bird hears people talking about Snow "like some kind of ornament . . . [to be] passed around. Everybody agreed that Snow was valuable, but she was far too valuable to have around for keeps. . . . they didn't really want her" (pp. 241). Given these experiences, it is small wonder that Snow should think, "beautiful [is] bad" (p. 231), and that she should quietly resent her own face: "I may or may not have hated my own face sometimes. I may or may not have spent time thinking of ways to spoil it somehow" (p. 217). Snow can only react with indifference to the adulation she receives, yawning over the many cards and gifts she receives upon her return to Flax Hill. Bird initially resents Snow's attitude: "I had a moment of hating her, or at least understanding why Mom did," but later realizes that such overattention is "something we do to her" (p. 266, emphasis added). Why, after all, should Snow be thankful for gifts she never sought out, at the cost of being treated like others' toy doll?
What does Snow symbolize in the novel?
In the fairy tale, Snow White is "the fairest of them all": her fairness refers to general beauty but her whiteassnow skin is treated as defining quality of that beauty. In the novel, the fair-skinned Snow Whitman symbolizes American society's obsession with whiteness as the foundation of "ideal" female beauty.
Light-skinned blacks like the Whitmans gained measurable advantages by capitalizing on their light skin color. Passing as white allows them liberties otherwise denied to blacks. As Bird's grandfather explains: "All your mama and I wanted was for our children to make some kind of difference in people's lives . . . . We've tried hard to make it easier for you to do these things without people slamming doors in your faces" (p. 277). These advantages come, however, at a terrible price. By remaking themselves as "white," the Whitmans are also buying into the belief that white is "better" than black. Horrific self-loathing results: Boy's grandmother recounts how other blacks' reminders of
her blackness made her feel: "I'd just want to pull all my skin right off my body" (p. 136). In the end, "passing" simply perpetuates the notion that whiteness is better. Boy realizes that prejudice won't end until blacks as well as whites reject the idea: "it's not whiteness itself that sets Them [whites] against Us [blacks], but the worship of whiteness. . . . we beat Them (and spare ourselves a lot of tedium and terror) by declining to worship" (emphasis added, p. 275). Boy rejects Snow and embraces the dark-skinned Bird to reject that paradigm? unfortunately, it simply embraces a reactive alternative (black is better than white) that really isn't any fairer to either of the girls.
In what ways is La Belle Capuchine a story about Frank?
La Belle Capuchine is the story of a beautiful slave who looks and acts almost exactly like her young white mistress. La Belle Capuchine "passes" so convincingly that, on the Day of Judgment, she is mistaken for a white woman and left behind by High John the Conqueror (p. 227). While La Belle Capuchine is a black woman attempting to be white, her fate to end up alone, shunned by both whites and blacks most closely mirrors that of Frances Novak, a woman who chooses to pass as a man ("Frank") after she is raped.
Her rapist acted in violence, to assert the power of men over women. By becoming Frank, Frances reclaims her power in some way? unfortunately, it also reflects a destructive, selfloathing acceptance that women are weaker and less valuable than men. Frank's antipathy toward Boy reflects his loathing of the woman he once was: the beautiful, freespirited Frances. Frances' transformation into Frank is only empowering on the surface. Other women are deeply unsettled by both Frances, and later, Frank. As Mia explains to Boy, women at the shelter "didn't know what to do about her [Frances] and frankly they didn't like her . . . . . [I]t was as if she'd been bitten by something vile and . . . was becoming the thing that had bitten her" (p. 295).
Frank seems to have completely erased Frances, although he finds little acceptance among men either. When Boy insists, "you've got to stop calling her 'him,'" Mia responds, "I don't know that I can. As it stands right now he's been Frank longer than he was Frances" (p. 296). Regardless, Frances' transformation (like la Belle Capuchine's) results only in Frank being shunned by all sides. It underscores the risks of "passing" as anything other than your true self, whatever else others may project upon you.
What does the novel say about mothers and motherhood?
A good mother protects her child, as Snow explains to Boy: "You [the mother] have to hide her [the child]. Like if a monster comes looking for her. . . . Even if the monster comes with a real nice smile" (pp. 912). However, most mothers fail in that duty in Oyeyemi's novel. As in the Snow White fairy tale, a mother's death (Julia Whitman) leaves behind an unprotected daughter (Snow) unprotected.
Boy's absent mother leaves her daughter equally unprotected. Frank's abuse drives Boy out, and toward her later, questionable role as a mother. Boy's "wickedness" is foreshadowed by the bracelet "a whitegold snake" (p. 103) that Arturo gives her? as Mia points out, "could it scream 'wicked stepmother' any louder?" (p. 105). Despite her intentions otherwise, Boy does play the "wicked stepmother" by sending Snow away because of the girl's literal "fairness"(whiteness). Paradoxically, Olivia Whitman sends her darkskinned daughter, Clara, away because she is not "fair" enough. In these ways, almost all the mothers in the novel turn out to be 'wicked stepmothers' who inflict harm on their daughters.
Why do mothers fail their children so terribly?
When Boy is pregnant, she is told, "this would be the time I felt what my mother had felt for me" (p. 140). Boy is shocked to feel not joy and fulfillment but fear and a deep sense of alienation: "This doesn't feel like my life. . . . Make this little girl let me go I don't know if I want her. Can't I start over?" (p. 141). In this moment, Boy experiences the revulsion and violation that her own mother must have felt carrying an unwanted child conceived of rape. The novel suggests that all children pose a similar threat to the women carrying them, promising to change their lives and sense of self beyond recognition.
What is the significance of the story of the beautiful woman who resists the magician's
attempts to make her ugly?
In this story, a powerful magician makes his living by "improving" women's looks or undoing their natural beauty for a fee: He'd look into a woman's eyes and say: "you are a beauty," and she heard the words and believed them so deeply that her features fell into either lush, soft harmony, or heart-breakingly strict symmetry whichever suited her better. He'd say it to her only once, and it lasted the rest of her lifetime. (p. 53) One day, he encounters a beautiful woman who proves untouchable. While the other women believe his words, granting the magician power over them, this woman refuses. She insists on having her own sense of self, not one dictated by others.
Similarly, Bird knows what society would like to make of her: "In the mirror I looked like her [Boy's] maid" (p. 185). Instead of fulfilling these expectations, she confounds them. She insists, for instance, on dressing up as Alice in Wonderland for Halloween, when others would say that only a blondehaired, white girl could be Alice (p. 161). When Snow complains of the weight of others' expectations, Bird simply scoffs, "So she was outnumbered. That was not a good excuse" (p. 264). Instead, Bird embraces the opening lines of a poem by Antonio Machado: "Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking." These lines tell her, "it's no big deal that I'm not like Snow. I can be another thing? I'm meant to be another thing" (p. 176). If the names "Boy" and "Snow" hint at the ways social prejudices can warp persons and perceptions, the name "Bird" conveys the hope that one may finally break free of them.