In this mesmerizing tale of repression and revelation, the psychoanalyst and acclaimed novelist Lisa Gornick has crafted a powerful storyline in which family ties are tested by a troubled outsider. At the heart of Tinderbox is the Manhattan psychotherapist Myra, whose phobia-addled son has just moved back in with her, accompanied by his wife and child. Myra hires a highly recommended Peruvian immigrant to serve as housekeeper and nanny. At first, Eva seems like a perfect fit, easily bonding with Myra’s grandson. But she is haunted by horrific images of the past, relying only on superstition to keep her safe from further harm. One afternoon, she settles into the chair normally reserved for Myra’s patients, igniting a heartrending, disturbing chain of events. Caught in a tragedy of good intentions, Myra and her family must confront the self-deception of their own long-buried traumas.
This guide is designed to enrich your discussion of Tinderbox. We hope that the following questions will enhance your reading group’s experience of this perceptive, provocative novel.
Questions and topics for discussion
1. Discuss the title and the way it is echoed in Myra’s wisdom regarding forest fires. What emotional tinder has been sparked in your family?
2. What accounts for the personality differences between Caro and Adam? What gives Caro the strength to know what she wants, and to ask for it (particularly from her father)?
3. As Eva describes her commitment to Judaism, what comes to light about her concept of a Jewish identity? From the point of view of Myra’s family, what does it mean to be Jewish?
4. How does Myra’s home reflect her shifting sense of self and her attempts to create order in an unpredictable world? What phase of her own motherhood does she confront when she makes room for Adam and his family?
5. What is the nature of the evil Eva experienced? Ultimately, what did she need from Myra? Would you have handled Eva’s insecurities the same way Myra did? How does the situation illustrate the dilemma of offering good advice to others but struggling to apply it to our own lives?
6. How do Adam and Rachida view love and sexuality? What are the strengths and frailties of their marriage?
7. Discuss the journey to Morocco. How is Rachida affected by loss? What does the amulet come to mean to her, if not to Eva?
8. What motivates Layla when she is pursuing a relationship? What are her most appealing traits, and her most difficult ones?
9. What did you discover about Jewish history by reading about Eva’s Peruvian ancestors? How does their immigration to South America compare to the experience of the New Yorkers featured in the book? What is your family’s concept of homeland?
10. Discuss the role of doctors and healing in Tinderbox. What tactics do the novel’s psychotherapists share with the other characters who are healers?
11. What is at the root of Adam’s insecurities? Do he and Eva share any of the same fears?
12. Discuss the letters between Larry and Myra in part 2, chapter 16. Would you have turned a blind eye to Larry’s infidelity? How does their relationship compare to Adam and Rachida’s? What accounts for Caro and Talis’s ability to “love life its very self,” reflecting Myra’s philosophy of love?
13. Which childhood memories have the most lasting impact on the characters? For Omar, which memories will have the strongest influence on his sense of self in adulthood?
14. What does Lisa Gornick’s fiction show us about the process of finding freedom in difficult truths?
Guide written by Amy Clements.
LISA GORNICK is the author of the novels Tinderbox and A Private Sorcery. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Agni Review, Prairie Schooner, The Sun, and psychoanalytic journals, and have received many awards. She has a B.S. from Princeton and a Ph.D in clinical psychology from Yale, and is a graduate of the writing program at New York University and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia. She lives with her family in New York City and is completing a collection of linked stories.