A stunning character-driven novel about the human desire to do the right thing, and the even stronger desire to love and to be seen for who we truly are. Deeply felt, sharply observed, and utterly engaging.
Liz, Aiden, and Sylvie are an urban, urbane, progressive family: Aiden's a therapist who refuses to own a car; Liz is an ambitious professional, a savvy traveler with a flair for decorating; Sylvie is a smart and political 19 year-old, fiercely independent, sensitive to hypocrisy, and crazy in love with her childhood playmate, Noah, a bright young scientist. Things seem to be going according to plan.
Then the present and the past collide in a crisis that shatters the complacency of all three. Liz and Sylvie are forced to confront a tragedy from years before, when four children went missing at an artists' retreat. In the long shadow of that event, the family is drawn to a dangerous precipice.
1. Discuss the traumatic event that Sylvie witnesses as a child which heavily influenced the way in which she sees the world as young adult. Is it surprising to you that her parents, though aware of it, are unable to see just how much it affects her? Beyond Sylvie’s politics, do you think this childhood trauma affects her as a new mother? If so, in what ways?
2. Liz and Sylvie appear to have a fairly strained mother-daughter relationship, but is this actually the case? How much of the strain and antagonism between mother and daughter is truly antagonistic and how much is the common push and pull of any normal mother-daughter relationship? Is the relationship between Sylvie and Liz an accurate portrayal of most mother-daughter relationships or is it indicative of much deeper and incendiary issues between the two characters?
3. Liz has a very hostile relationship with Noah’s mother, Mary Magdalen. Discuss the roots and nature of this hostility, both in the flashbacks to Sylvie’s childhood, and as the families work out how to approach caring for Sylvie and Noah’s child. How might these negative feelings influence Sylvie as she attempts to care for the new baby? How does Mary Magdalen and Liz’s relationship influence and mould the relationship between Sylvie and Noah?
4. The Opening Sky is written from a multi-character perspective bringing profound but at times very different points of view to the same situation. There are multiple instances of this perspective showing very different understandings of a single event. Using the character of Mary Magdalen, discuss the very different ways in which she is viewed by Aiden, Liz and Sylvie. How does each character view Mary Magdalen? What does the different way in which each character views Mary tell us—about Mary, and about them as individuals?
5. The main characters in The Opening Sky are extremely open and vocal about their progressive politics. At the same time, the characters are at times quite materialistic and very self-focused. Discuss politics in the novel and the way in which they define the main characters, in particular Aiden, Liz, and Sylvie. How committed are these characters to their political claims? Is the way Joan Thomas presents these characters and their politics reflective of how you see people in contemporary Canada engaging politically? How?
6. In the novel, there is an implicit generational divide between Noah/Sylvie and their parents in how to approach the subject of teen pregnancy, especially as termination is not really an option. Discuss how this generational divide plays out in The Opening Sky. Also, discuss this generational divide regarding teen pregnancy generally, from the side of both “baby boomer” parents and “millennial” children. What has changed—both for parents and for children—in terms of the way teen pregnancy is approached? Why has this change occurred?
7. Liz and Aiden have very different modes of parenting, to say nothing of the rather different ways in which they view the world. How have these different parenting styles affected their own relationship? Has the way in which they parent brought them together or pushed them apart? Using parenthood as the context for discussion, are Liz and Aiden good partners? And how has Sylvie been moulded by these different approaches to her and her development as a human being?
8. Aiden’s relationship with one of his patients, Jake (Defrag), is extremely interesting, stretching even to a ‘friendship’ outside of Aiden’s counselling practice. At their last meeting in the novel, Jake suggests to Aiden that “I’m afraid I can’t take you on at the moment” (pp 329). What is Aiden searching for in his relationship with Jake? Is it an attempt to obtain therapeutic counselling of his own? Is Aiden’s desire to spend time with Jake a product of his own quite social and family life? Or is it Aiden’s attempt to “fix” something in his own work at which he thinks he has failed?
9. Are the Glasgow-Phimisters an accurate portrayal of the contemporary middle-class Canadian family? Is there such a thing as contemporary middle-class Canadian family? In their relationships between each other and their approach to the birth of Sylvie’s baby discuss how the Glasgow-Phimisters are emblematic of the Canadian middle-class, or how they differ. How does the family dynamic in the novel show us the concerns and ambitions of a middle-class family in today’s Canada?
10. It is never conclusively explained why Sylvie “abandons” her daughter after her trip to visit Noah. Is this an example of post-partum depression? Exhaustion? Youth? Some combination of these factors? And while it would be impossible to remove these factors from the equation, from the “why” of the abandonment, what other factors were at play here? Has Thomas’ drawing of the main characters relationships with each other provided any additional clues? How did the child’s abandonment affect you emotionally? Where and in what way did your sympathies lie?
11. “Eco-anxiety” and fears about climate change are real concerns for the main characters in the book, particularly Sylvie and Aiden. At the same time, there is a real appreciation for and importance given to the beauty and ruggedness of the Manitoba and northern Ontario landscape. How does the global fear surrounding climate change affect the characters in the book? Does it inform their own fears on less global issues? And, in particular, how does this anxiety surrounding an uncertain future affect the characters’ response to the birth of Faun? Is the uncertainty surrounding the entry of another human being into the world caused by fear of the world this child will inherit, or the characters own, individual fears about the world they have to live in for the rest of their lives?
12. The Opening Sky concludes with a certain sense of ambivalence—about who would raise Noah and Sylvie’s baby, about their relationship and about the relationship between Sylvie and Liz. Give what you have gleaned about the nature of these characters, where do you see these relationships a year into the future? Who is raising Faun? How are Noah and Sylvie living their lives? These are answers raised by the novel that you cannot help wanting the answers to—for what artistic purpose has Thomas left these questions unresolved?