October 25, 2011

Robert Vish­ni­ak is the favored son of Oxford Cir­cle, a work­ing-class Jew­ish neigh­bor­hood in 1970s Philadel­phia. Hand­some and clever, Robert glides into the clois­tered uni­ver­si­ties of New Eng­land, where scions of unimag­in­able wealth and influ­ence stand shoul­der to shoul­der with schol­ar­ship pau­pers like him­self who wash dish­es for book mon­ey. The doors that open there lead Robert to the high­est cir­cles of Man­hat­tan soci­ety dur­ing the heart of the Rea­gan boom where every­thing Robert has learned about women, through seduc­tion and heart­break, pays off. For a brief moment, he has it all-but the world in which he finds him­self is not the world from which he comes, and a chance encounter with a beau­ti­ful girl from the old neigh­bor­hood-and the for­got­ten life she reawak­ens-threat­ens to unrav­el his care­ful­ly con­struct­ed new identity.


Discussion Questions

1. Robert Vish­ni­ak grows up in the 1950’s and 60’s in Oxford Cir­cle, a work­ing-class Jew­ish neigh­bor­hood in North­east Philadel­phia. How does grow­ing up in this neigh­bor­hood shape his sense of self as an adult? As a Jew? 

2. Robert’s rela­tion­ship with his moth­er is, in many ways, at the emo­tion­al cen­ter of this nov­el. How does she over­turn the stereo­type of the Jew­ish moth­er? How does she fit it? 

3. Robert and his broth­er Bar­ry have a com­pli­cat­ed sib­ling rival­ry. How does this influ­ence the tra­jec­to­ry of the plot? Which broth­er gar­ners more sympathy? 

4. The 1960’s coun­ter­cul­ture is the back­drop for a sig­nif­i­cant part of this nov­el. Were the 1960’s dif­fer­ent for Jews than for oth­er groups? Why or why not? 

5. Robert is with a vari­ety of women in this nov­el, all of whom have dif­fer­ent rela­tion­ships to their own Jew­ish­ness. How do they influ­ence him, either pos­i­tive­ly or neg­a­tive­ly? Is there one that you liked bet­ter than others? 

6. Among oth­er things, this is a nov­el about striv­ing for the Amer­i­can Dream. Does Robert achieve it, ulti­mate­ly? Why or why not?