Paragon Hotel (Faye) - Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions
1. While Americans study the South’s Jim Crow laws as part of U.S. history, fewer people are aware that the Pacific Northwest was envisioned by many of its settlers as a whites-only utopia, a place that would remain free of crime as long as it remained free of people of color. Did this information surprise  you? Due to Oregon’s geography, did you expect its founders to hold more open views regarding race?

2. Jazz music is what first brings Alice and Max together, and mixed-race nightclub during the Prohibition era were regarded by many social reformers as being a key positive catalyst in breaking down color lines. What is your favorite musical style? Have you ever connected with someone who  had a very different upbringing because you enjoyed the same music? Do you see music (or art or performance) as a way of relating to complete strangers?

3. Immediately following the importation of the Mafia from Italy to New York City, the Five Families unleashed terrible violence against their fellow immigrants and exerted tremendous control over local politics and commerce. Alice remarks wryly at one point that it’s difficult for her to understand whites abusing blacks, since Italians so strongly preferred to abuse one another (as did the Irish and the Yiddish gangs of New York). In your  experience, or in your family history, was your culture more in danger of being terrorized from within or from without?

4. Identity and the ability to know oneself are major themes in this novel, especially as the friendship between Blossom and Alice develops. How well does Blossom know herself? How well does Alice? Are they ever wrong about themselves, and how does each woman help the other to see herself in a  different light? Do you think everyone keeps profound secrets, or do you find the two women remarkable in this regard?

5. Substance abuse affects many of the characters in The Paragon Hotel. For example, when heroin was first introduced by Bayer, it was marketed as cough syrup, and Prohibition led to many deaths caused by illegally produced alcohol that was tainted with other chemicals. How many addicts can you identify in the book? To what extent could Blossom be considered one? Why or why not? Did the heroin epidemic of that time period remind you of oxycodone or Oxy-Contin abuse in America today?

6. Nicolo Benenati’s last name translates in Italian to "born good." How far do you think a person’s character can be warped by tragic circumstances? Do you think that he really was born good and then corrupted, or do you think that Nicolo must always have been somewhat unstable? Why or why not? Mr. Salvatici also commits atrocities in the novel, though largely off the page. Did you sympathize with him after his own family tragedy was revealed, or did you continue to denounce his choices? Why or why not?

7. The Ku Klux Klan experienced a massive swell in their numbers during the uncertain years following World War I, a time when women’s roles were changing rapidly, immigrants were arriving in unprecedented numbers, and African Americans were migrating into new neighborhoods. The Klan’s terrible influence was strongest not only in the South, where many people of color resided, but also in suburban areas that were already completely dominated by white Protestants. Why do you think that might have been? Blossom argues with Jenny that it doesn’t matter how genteel and sophisticated the black population appears; they will never be fully accepted by whites. To what extent was she right or wrong?

8. While the concept of feminism has existed for as long as females have, Prohibition was the backdrop for massive sea changes in the realm of women’s rights. As a result, for the first time, the playing field was leveled, since alcohol was now illegal for everyone: women drank in private clubs, smoked in public restaurants, cut their hair, married later, worked a wider range of jobs, and were allowed to vote. How do you imagine you would have reacted to all the upheaval? Would you have marched with the suffragettes and teetotalers, caroused with the flappers, or sat at home by the fire with a good book? Would your family have approved of you? Why or why not?

9. There is a wide spectrum of love in this novel—romantic love, sisterly love, twisted love, familial love, and love of community, to name a few. Which relationships affected you the most, and why did they draw you in? Is it more important to you to have a close-knit group to rely on or one special person who understands you better than anyone else? Did you see any of your own relationships reflected in these characters, and if so, which were they?

10. To what extent did the setting affect the characters in The Paragon Hotel? Did the starkly urban, multicultural concrete jungle of New York seem more familiar to you than the lush, rain-soaked woodlands surrounding Portland? To what extent might the Step Right Inn, the Hotel Arcadia, and the Paragon Hotel be thought of as characters in this book? Have you ever stayed in a hotel that left a lasting impression on you, and if so, where was it and what was it like? What happened to make your visit memorable?

11. Most of the people in this novel believe in some form of spirituality or the supernatural. Alice mingles Catholicism with superstitions, Mavereen is a staunch Christian, Blossom has a whimsical attitude toward Fate and "lost pennies," Evelina seems to own slightly mystical qualities, Wednesday Joe puts all his trust in luck, and Jenny Kiona holds deep respect for her own Native American roots. Do you believe in higher powers? If so, what kind, and what form does that belief take?

12. Seeing more of the world changes many people in this book, including Alice, when she takes refuge in Portland. How does leaving New York, where she has spent her entire life, alter her? Dr. Pendleton and Maximilian both served in World War I—what marks did their experiences leave on them? Mavereen and her late husband migrated to Portland from Georgia—how did this affect them? Max and Blossom others enjoyed a wider range of freedom and pleasure in Paris than in America. Evelina went away to college. Is travel important to you? Why or why not?

13. Alice’s powers of disguising herself depend a great deal on her wardrobe. To what extent is clothing important to her? How does it keep her safe? How and when does a character’s garb determine her class or the extent of her power? Can people really change themselves by changing their style? Blossom uses artful makeup and glamorous gowns as both weapons and shields. Do you choose clothing more for expediency, or do you ever manipulate what you’re wearing to give others a different impression of you?

14. While The Paragon Hotel has a definite ending, the fates of many of the characters remain unclear and fraught with danger. What do you imagine happens to Max and Alice afterward? Or to Wednesday Joe, and Jenny? Rooster and Miss Christina? What do you imagine becomes of Blossom and Evelina, and what do you see when you picture Davy Lee as an adult? If it interests you, try sketching out their later lives as a writing exercise.
(Questions issued by the publisher. See the Book Club Kit.)

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