The Beautiful Possible

HarperCollins Publishers  2016


What is The Beautiful Possible about? While the story flirts with many conflicting ideas (the search for God, the struggle to find one’s identity), the core of the book lies within the hearts of our three protagonists: sad and searching Walter, a refugee from World War II, his life permanently on hold as he struggles to come to terms with the loss of his family; young and eager Rosalie, recently engaged and searching for meaning and happiness in her newfound adulthood; and confused and lost Sol, Rosalie’s fiancé and a soon-to-be rabbi, a man who believes his happiness will be found in the study of the Bible, forced to confront hidden inner feelings the moment he and Walter are introduced.

We meet these three characters early on in their lives, when the future still holds so much possibility. As the years go on, we see how these characters morph into people who become strangers to one another—strangers who want totally different things. The star student becomes the rabbi struggling to find a connection to God; the optimistic bride becomes the overwhelmed and disappointed wife; the refugee know-it-all turns regretful, moving throughout life without a home or a family to claim as his own.

While all three characters love each other intensely, the love changes throughout the years as well. Sol and Rosalie find their initial attraction and lust diminished after Rosalie and Walter set off into a wild affair that changes all their lives forever. And Sol and Walter’s relationship grows from study partners and friends to something more complex, more confusing for Sol and his tortured heart.

What could be seen as a superficial love triangle between these characters is to overlook the complexity that is found in their relationships. Sol and Rosalie love each other, but Walter manages to inspire both Sol and Rosalie in different ways. The book traces their growth from young adult to the end of their lives, as Rosalie and Sol get married and have children, while Walter becomes a scholar and traveler of the world. The connection these three characters have to one another is not a simple one, but one wrapped in years of lust, intellectual stimulation, betrayal, and compassion.

A fable for the modern era, a love story steeped in biblical text and mystical yearning—The Beautiful Possible illuminates the struggle to find one’s identity in a world rife with expectation and judgment—and how entirely possible it is that the life you think you are living might, in fact, be a beautiful lie.

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Discussion Questions

Courtesy of HarperCollins

  1. How do you understand Abraham Joshua Heschel’s quote: “Books are no more than seeds; we must be the soil and the atmosphere in which they grow” and Walter’s quote: “The words of the texts echo in the lives of the people who read them.” How are these related ideas expressed throughout the novel?

  2. Paul and Madeline are secondary characters whose actions shape the plot. What roles do they play in the story and do these characters share any similarities?

  3. Why doesn’t Sol consult with Walter directly for help in writing his sermons, and why does he suggest that Rosalie go to Berkeley? How is Sol both conscious and unaware of Rosalie and Walter’s affair? What does this reveal about his character?

  4. What role does Rosalie’s father play in the story, and how are the teachings of the Ishbitzer Rebbe expressed throughout the novel?

  5. During the fire at Eden Ranch, Walter calls out Sonia and Josef’s names, among others. What does this scene signify in the story?

  6. Compare the ways in which Sol and Rosalie express their grief after Lenny dies. What does this reveal about their individual perspectives on faith?

  7. In “The Fourth Night” chapter, do you think Sol becomes aware of the connection between Walter and Maya? How is this suggested, and what remains enigmatic?

  8. Compare Rosalie’s and Maya’s understanding of Jewish tradition. How are their spiritual sensibilities alike and how do they differ?

  9. Madeline says to Rosalie, “It takes three, sweet pea…. A man and a woman and a living spark that keeps all the desire in motion.” Explain what this means in the context of the novel. Do you agree with Madeline?

  10. Sol says, “It’s better to be a spiritual civilian than a spiritual leader.” What contributes to his ambivalence about his profession? How does Maya reinterpret this in her own approach to becoming a rabbi?

  11. Why doesn’t Rosalie tell Maya about Walter? Why does Madeline finally tell her?

  12. What is the point of view in this novel, and how does the book within a book motif relate to the story?

  13. The connection between Walter, Rosalie, and Sol is described as a braid. Does this braided love story carry a sense of betrayal, a suggestion of redemption, or both? If betrayal, who is betrayed? And if redemption, who is redeemed?

  14. Whom do you consider to be Maya’s spiritual parents? Explain.

  15. What role does Bev play in the story?

  16. What does the title The Beautiful Possible refer to?

  17. Do you think Maya’s life in Jerusalem fulfills Sonia’s dream? Why or why not?

  18. In her closing letter to Madeline, Maya writes, “Inside every story lies the hidden kernel of an infinite one.” What does this line mean in the context of the novel? Discuss how this statement finds expression in your own life.

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