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.
The Clothes on Their Backs
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.lindagrant.co.uk/.
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