The Wanting

Schocken Books  2013


Terrorism can come in many forms. Is state-sponsored persecution and injustice any less painful for families and loved ones of the victims? Or the survivors? Michael Lavigne scrutinizes the minds and souls not only of victims but of perpetrators as well. What do they want?

Amir, a young Arab, detonates his suicide belt at a bus stop directly below Roman Guttman’s office. Roman is miraculously alive, surrounded by the shattered window. An émigré from the former Soviet Union, he is a survivor yet again. He will recover from his physical injuries, but he struggles, embarking on a dangerous odyssey, in his quest for meaning. He perceives the head of the bomber tagging along.

Disembodied Amir, denied Paradise (temporarily, he hopes), doomed to follow Roman, thinks back to his childhood, when his cousin and hero, Fadi, asked him to wait in an ice cream parlor while he left with his friends to plot ‘an adventure.’ Amir tried to follow, couldn’t catch up, and lost the chance for a delicious banana split. “I am certain that what I felt that day, I also feel today: a wanting for something I have never tasted, but without which life cannot be said to have been properly lived.”

The third voice is that of Roman’s thirteen year old daughter, Anna (Anyusha), who has never known her mother—the beautiful, ethereal, refusenik, Collette—seen in flashbacks. Survivor Anna searches as well; her path, too, puts her in harm’s way.

The shards of glass in the opening sequence could represent the lives of the protagonists; glittering, fragile, longing to be made whole. Roman Guttman’s thirst, as he ignores his body’s needs, is both real and metaphorical. After the bombing, Anna begins a journal, hoping that if she writes about her father hale and well, life will imitate art.

Michael Lavigne’s prose is confident, powerful, and lyrical. The reader is smoothly shifted between time and place; hallucination and/or fantasy and reality.

Read Michael Lavigne's Posts for the Visiting Scribe

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Discussion Questions

1. Why does the author place the action in three distinct locations – Israel, The Territories, and Moscow? What impact did that have on you as readers? Likewise, the action takes place in different time periods, none of them present – how did that impact your understanding of the story?

2. One of the central themes of the novel is the search for, or the defense of, home. How does this theme play out for each of the characters? What does it mean to them, and to you, to have a “home,” and why is it so difficult to achieve?

3. What other themes do you recognize in the novel?

4. The book opens when a suicide bomber kills scores of people outside Roman Guttman’s office. Why do you think the bombing is only reported, and not actually witnessed in the novel? What do you make of the head floating past Guttman’s window?

5. What role does God play in the novel? Is He a character? A figment of the imagination? An ironic presence? A true force?

6. How did you feel about Amir and did it change throughout the book?

What did you take from the fact that Amir is an artist in the making? What do you think really drives Amir to commit such a destructive act? Can you imagine yourself or anyone you know driven to such an end?

7. How was Anyusha, the daughter, impacted by the bombing? Given that she was already under the influence of Rabbi Keren and Miriam, do you think she would have gone down the same path if the bombing had never happened? How did you perceive to her involvement in the “Second Temple” movement?

8. Anyusha hears a multitude of confusing voices – but in the end hears only one voice. What are these voices? What are they trying to tell her? Why does she want them to disappear? How do they shape her?

9. Collette has ethical choices to make regarding her unborn daughter. What were your feelings about Collette? Did she make the right decisions in difficult circumstances or not? Which is more important: one’s family or ones ideals?

10. Another theme in the book is that of the “absent parent” – the chasm between mother and daughter, father and son, which exists for Amir, Roman, and especially Anyusha, who experiences her mother’s physical absence and her father’s spiritual emptiness. Do you think it is possible to recapture what is lost in such cases? Are there positive aspects to such a quest?

11. Various ideologies play an important role in the novel: Communism, Zionism, Islamic fundamentalism, Palestinian nationalism. In what ways are the characters affected by their ideologies? In what ways do these ideologies ennoble the human spirit and in what ways do they crush the human spirit?

12. The author draws a vivid picture of life in the Soviet Union, including a trial scene and a description of prison. What are your memories or associations with this period, and do you see any connection to the present? Is it possible to escape our pasts or are we doomed to act them out over and over?

13. Does the author take a position on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict? If so, what do you think it is? If not, why not, and how does it make you feel about the book?

14. The author employs various genres within the novel: the play form, stories within stories, a short fairy tale, talking animals and the like. Why do you think he does this, and what was the impact on you, the reader?

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