What Disappears is a multi-generational tale that begins in Tsarist Russia in the late 19th century and ends in Paris with the start of the First World War. One of two identical twins born to a Jewish family in dire political and financial straits, Zaneta is spirited out of an orphanage by a Catholic family from France. The other twin, Sonya — raised to believe her sister died at birth — has her life upended by the 1903 pogrom in Kishinev. They come face to face as 29-year-old identical strangers in the doorway of Anna Pavlova’s dressing-room when both get jobs in Paris with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The resulting complicated relationship exposes their darkest secrets and dearest hopes, affecting not only their lives but also the lives and fates of Sonya’s three daughters. Peopled by the greatest dancers, writers, artists, designers and trendsetters of the Belle Époque, What Disappears explores the ways in which girls and women dene their identity and search for meaning in a world that tries at every turn to hold them back.
Courtesy of Barbara Quick
1. How is the historical truth interwoven with what we might call “the emotional truth” in What Disappears?
2. What are some of the “truths” we find in this novel that wouldn’t be contained in a straight-on book of history?
3. How has this novel changed your perceptions about the world of professional ballet, the time period of the Belle Époque, and/or the difficulties faced by women and girls who lived then?
4. Sonya and her sister Jeannette are identical twins raised apart. But they can also be seen, metaphorically, as very different aspects of a single person, such that we all have more than one self inside us. Did you identify more with one twin than the other? Do you think we all have a “good” self and a “bad” self inside us?
5. As depicted in this novel, the dancers of the Ballets Russes in the early 1900s felt the same aches, had the same preoccupation with their pointe shoes, their warm-up, their performance routine, their professional ambitions and their insecurities as dancers today. Do you think this is particularly true for ballet — or are all people in the arts, across time, faced with similar challenges?
6. Are there characters in the novel who remind you of people you’ve known or loved or depended on? Are there characters in the novel who remind you of yourself?
7. The concept of costuming in ballet and high fashion is an underlying theme in What Disappears: a dancer’s costume is a way of becoming a different version of herself while hiding an inner part of herself from view. What meaning does “becoming another self” have for each of the twins? How does each of them strive to keep her inmost self hidden from the world? What effect, if any, do you think their time in the orphanage had on Sonya and Jeannette? Can you speculate on the underlying role that shame has for each of them?
8. Both the twins acknowledge harboring a darkness inside themselves. Sonya says to Jeannette: “I was only wondering whether perhaps you also have a very dark place inside you, like I do. A place of hopelessness that’s always there, even when you’re happy – always waiting for your return.” Are there ways in which you identify with this inner sense of darkness or hopelessness? How do you think such feelings are fueled by trauma, either personal or historical (i.e., such as by our collective memory of the Holocaust)?
9. Jeannette dreams of finding “redemption” through success as a ballerina. Olga, similarly, expresses a desire for “vindication” through achieving something great in the world. Even though these two characters are adversaries in the novel, they’re alike in this way. What is it about success that seems to carry with it the possibility of redemption for so many ambitious people?
10. How does toxic masculinity and male entitlement play out in the novel? What do you think has changed in male-female power relationships since the early nineteenth century? Are there some things in the news today — or in your own life — that make it seem as though the same or similar power dynamics are still at play?
11. Paul Poiret’s treatment of the twins is execrable! At every turn, he’s motivated by his own selfish needs, his own professional ambitions and his own sexual desires. And yet he’s also capable of kindness, insight and even compassion. He’s an innovative and humane employer for his time. He’s wonderful to the 12-year-old working-class Parisian girls he trains for lucrative design careers. He sends and pays for the doctor who saves Olga’s life. What do you think of Paul Poiret? Is he simply a monster? To what extent is the bad behavior of brilliant people forgivable? Is their gift to culture and society a fair price for the destruction they leave in their wake? Is it more important to be a good person — or a great artist?
12. What are your reactions to Sonya’s attempt to explain to her sister what it means to be Jewish?
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