The Clothes on Their Backs

Lin­da Grant

November 15, 2011

A fas­ci­nat­ing cast of char­ac­ters erupts from the pages of Lin­da Grant’s fourth nov­el, The Clothes on Their Backs, which was short­list­ed for the pres­ti­gious Man Book­er Prize. In the open­ing scene, mid­dle-aged Vivien Kovacs walks into a Lon­don dress shop and has a dif­fi­cult and dis­turb­ing con­ver­sa­tion with the ele­gant, elder­ly shop clerk. As Vivien leaves the store with a new dress in hand, the read­er is aware of the many secrets that await dis­cov­ery in the pages of the book. After escap­ing to Lon­don from Hun­gary dur­ing World War II, Vivien’s par­ents led a her­met­ic life, fear­ful of all the dan­gers that soci­ety could impose upon their fam­i­ly. Their shel­tered life includ­ed refusal of con­tact with a shady char­ac­ter who turns out to be a con­vict­ed slum lord, Viven’s only sur­viv­ing rel­a­tive, and the one true love of the elder­ly shop clerk. Con­tin­u­al­ly return­ing to the theme that the clothes on our backs con­tain more secrets than what appears on the sur­face, Grant undress­es con­nec­tions between good and evil and between secrets and lies, and in the process cre­ates a world adorned in shades of gray.

Discussion Questions

Read­ing Group Guide

Cour­tesy of Scribner 


Vivien Kovacs, a sen­si­tive and imag­i­na­tive girl, grows up sealed off from the world in a Lon­don apart­ment build­ing full of eccen­tric reclus­es. Her timid par­ents con­ceal the details of their escape from Hun­gary dur­ing the Holo­caust and shy away from any encounter with the out­side world, so Vivien must learn to nav­i­gate soci­ety on her own. With the help of a large wardrobe of vin­tage clothes, Vivien sets out for col­lege and trans­forms her­self into a beau­ti­ful and edu­cat­ed young woman. But, when tragedy strikes, Vivien returns home to her par­ents and to a rou­tine of lone­ly, emp­ty days and nights. A chance encounter leads Vivien to her estranged uncle, noto­ri­ous crim­i­nal and slum lord, Sán­dor Kovacs. Against her father’s wish­es she helps Sán­dor record his life sto­ry, which he is anx­ious to share in his old age. As Sán­dor reveals the sur­pris­ing truth about her family’s past, Vivien begins to under­stand who she real­ly is, and where she belongs.

Ques­tions for Discussion

1. The clothes you wear are a meta­mor­pho­sis. They change you from the out­side in….We are for­ev­er turn­ing into some­one else, and should nev­er for­get that some­one else is always look­ing.” How does cloth­ing help to define the char­ac­ters at dif­fer­ent stages of their lives? How else is cloth­ing used as a metaphor in the novel? 

2. How do the var­i­ous char­ac­ters use secrets as a means of pro­tec­tion? How do the rev­e­la­tions of these secrets lead to both tragedy and free­dom for those involved?

3. Are there indi­ca­tions that Ervin and Sán­dor love each oth­er despite their decades-long feud? In what ways do they express their love? What is iron­ic about the way each influ­ences the life of the other? 

4. Vivien says, I learned the only truth that mat­ters: that suf­fer­ing does not enno­ble and that sur­vivors sur­vive because of their strength or cun­ning or luck, not their good­ness, and cer­tain­ly not their inno­cence.” Dis­cuss this state­ment and how it relates to the theme of sur­vival in this book. 

5. How do the oth­er res­i­dents of Ben­son Court open up Vivien’s world? 

6. What does the book tell us about the com­pli­cat­ed nature of truth? 

7. Describ­ing Alexander’s death Vivien says, “[i]t’s just ridicu­lous the doors that are slight­ly ajar between life and death. Life’s extreme fragili­ty is all around us, as if we are per­pet­u­al­ly walk­ing on floors of cracked glass.” Dis­cuss this theme as it relates to the book as a whole. 

8. Why does Vivien’s moth­er encour­age her to have an abor­tion? Did this sur­prise you? 

9. Vivien says, If you try, if you have a pro­found will­ing­ness to let your­self go com­plete­ly you can enter the mind of anoth­er person….the more you prac­tice it, the more inter­est­ing life becomes, though also hard­er to bear because you under­stand how quick­ly most peo­ple reach their own lim­i­ta­tions, how impos­si­ble it is for them to ful­fill your ardent expec­ta­tions of them.” What does Vivien mean? How do we all have expec­ta­tions of oth­ers that are impos­si­ble for them to fulfill?

10. Sán­dor is a con­tro­ver­sial char­ac­ter who, despite his crimes, has many like­able qual­i­ties. What did you think of him? Were you more sym­pa­thet­ic toward him after read­ing his sto­ry in his own words? Are his actions forgivable? 

11. Vivien says she and Sán­dor are alike. Do you think this is true? How so? 

12. What did you think of Vivien’s father? Were you sym­pa­thet­ic toward him? Why might it be eas­i­er to like Sán­dor bet­ter than Ervin? 

13. When Vivien finds the swasti­ka draw­ing in Claude’s note­book she says, When you are the ene­my of a per­son with an ide­ol­o­gy, you’re in seri­ous trouble….I knew that quite ordi­nary peo­ple, who had no thoughts at all, just feel­ings, could be equal­ly dan­ger­ous.” What is dan­ger­ous about Claude? What is the sig­nif­i­cance of this state­ment as it relates to the his­tor­i­cal con­tent of this book?

14. What is the sig­nif­i­cance of the book’s title? How can it be inter­pret­ed in sev­er­al dif­fer­ent ways? 

15. Did you like Vivien? Did you feel that you knew her bet­ter by the book’s end, or was she still some­what mys­te­ri­ous to you? Why might this be?

16. Dur­ing Vivien and Sándor’s last con­ver­sa­tion Sán­dor kiss­es Vivien’s hand. My uncle, my flesh and blood which had suf­fered and made oth­ers to suf­fer. Revul­sion and empa­thy, these were my feel­ings.” How do Vivien’s feel­ings about Sán­dor change over the course of the nov­el? Does she come to love him? Toward who else does Vivien feel both revul­sion and empathy? 

17. Why does Eunice see Sán­dor dif­fer­ent­ly from every­one else? How does her past par­al­lel Sándor’s? What does she have in com­mon with oth­er char­ac­ters in the novel?

18. Why does Sán­dor attack Claude? What does Vivien mean when she says Sán­dor died of his own eye?” 

19. Dis­cuss the role that chance encoun­ters play in shap­ing the lives of these char­ac­ters and set­ting the stage for far-reach­ing con­se­quences. How are we all shaped by chance in many ways?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. This nov­el is full of deli­cious desserts. Ask every­one to bring a dif­fer­ent cake or sweet treat based on one in the book and serve with cof­fee. Or bring your favorite cake recipes for swapping.

2. Have a clothes swap. In hon­or of Vivien’s love for vin­tage dress­es, gath­er up items you no longer wear to bring to your book club meet­ing. Open some bev­er­ages and snacks, have a mini fash­ion show, and trade! 

3. Learn more about the author at http://​www​.linda​grant​.co​.uk/