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ALU Summer Book Club: Ring Staff Discussion
It’s our favourite time of the year: the ALU team broke out the snacks and sat down to discuss André Alexis’s Ring (Coach House Books), our July book club pick. Plus, download our discussion guide for your own book club!
1. Would you want to own the ring in Ring? Is it a gift or a curse?Tan: “…the desire to change each other is kind of a curse. It’s one that, going into a relationship, you love this person. You can see this flaw. You want to just polish that out a little bit. Bring out the best in each other. But then also, if you’re too focused on the other person’s flaws and not on your own, it can be the wrong dynamics, I think. Instead, we should be looking at working on accepting other people, and also improving ourselves.”Laura: “The ring was such asymmetrical power, right? This little magic. And even though the beloved would do all these things as a result of your decisions with the ring, they don’t know about it. And so, it just seems super unfair. But I also was really intrigued because the ring opened up this whole understanding of [Gwen’s] mother, and and her life and her choices, and whatever is going on with her, and I guess the dad doesn’t know about it.”Barb: “I personally really found the idea that you would have that kind of control over the rest of someone’s entire life by some brief decisions you made when you were young very frightening, because I imagined it happening to me, and not having that control over the rest of my life, even if I was unaware. And in fact, maybe it has happened to me – I don’t know, right? But I would be deeply uncomfortable to do that to another person, which I mean, I think [Gwen] also very much felt that.”Lauren: “Do you think that’s kind of analogous to marriage in general? A lot of people get married when they’re young, and it’s a major decision that they’re making for the rest of their lives. In the book there’s a lot of characters who are finding love again, or reconsidering what love means to them.”Morin: “I think it has too much power, because in my head – and slight spoilers ahead, saying that now – it has the whole Greek mythology with Aphrodite, and everything. I’m like: that’s the one thing that mythology always teaches is like don’t repeat the past, history is telling you not to repeat it but no one really does. So I would not touch it with a ten-foot pole. How do I throw this in a volcano, Lord of the Rings-style?”The ALU team discusses: would you want Ring‘s eponymous ring?(Viewer beware: slight spoilers!)
2. This is a very literary book, but it’s fun to see Alexis playing with some romance genre tropes – did any stick out to you in particular?Tan: “Hating your beloved on first sight.”Barb: “That whole, knowing right away that this is your person.”Lauren: “I like that has that traditional romance trope of it having to end with a wedding, but then a new romance element of: ‘There’s only one bed in this cold cabin and our car broke down. And what are we supposed to do?’ I was so excited when I read that.”Tan: “I liked all the other romances that got pulled in on side threads. People thinking people are together, but not really together, and pretending to be fine on the sidelines…”Morin: “There’s the going for the best friend because technically she first saw the other guy.”Lauren: “I think another trope is that the guy just has some sort of unexplainable wealth, even though it is explained in another of the quincunx novels. But he just has this like perfect, amazing, apartment.”Barb: “That is definitely a trope, and nobody ever, ever, falls in love with a man who’s not solvent in a romance novel, like, ever.”Tahmina: “In other romcoms, they’re an enemies-to-lovers so this was very different, because they had it all figured out from the start almost. And it was also a little unexpected, because in romcoms, if two friends like the same girl, or if one friend assumes that his other friend likes that girl, they’re not really friends anymore, there is some tension there. You have this whole “love triangle” going on in other romcoms that I didn’t feel like they necessarily had, Olivier and Tan, because they had this unspoken understanding that later on they touched on.”
3. How does the idea of family – given and found – play into some of the characters’ actions in the book?Tan: “For Gwen, the legacy that belongs to her family shapes the entire action of the book and her role in the book. So it is pretty important, and a pretty powerful influence on her. I don’t think we get to really talk about Tancred’s family per se or birth family, I guess. But his chosen family or his community is also very important to him. He denies his love for Gwen because of his loyalty to Olivier and they’re very protective of Simone and Gordon, and they all care about each other very much. So you really see he is just as much connected to the important people in his life, as she is to the important people in her family.”Barb: “I thought it was very interesting, as you say, that she just had the one friend, and somehow she just got pulled into this little second family with Simone and Tancred and Olivier, doing all this stuff together. I mean, how do you meet these people? Because, how wonderful to just fall into a close group.”Lauren: “I think it ties back to what we were talking about with lineage, and all of the foremothers of the ring before. There’s a quick conversation that [Gwen] has with her mom about: ‘Oh, I thought that you might be the one to not use it.’ So I think there’s also this burden to use the ring. But then there’s also this burden on the mother that their daughter might be the first one to break tradition and their guardianship of the ring.”
4. This book has a lot to chew on – the characters lapse into discussions about philosophy, art, religion, and, of course, love – but it’s also very funny. What moments in the novel took you by surprise in that way?Barb: “When Alana popped in. I’d been talking to my mom about our meeting and said it was so nice to see everyone again, that I’d had a lot of really great conversations with Alana. And then I came running down the stairs, like ‘She’s here!’ I thought it was really adorable of him to throw her in there like that. Pretty fascinating, and always interesting to literally know a character in a fictional book.”Laura: “There were a lot of other real Canadian poets and artists, too. Lots of trademark irony and dry humour. All of the commentary around social galas and the rich settings – all of those interactions, there was a ton of humour in that.”Tan: “The hilarious menu that was like 20-something items long. And you can just imagine all these – bubbled fruit, pearled whatevers coming out on spoons and tiny plates just forever. Such a perfect satire of that whole experience.”
5. Was there a particular setting in Ring that you wanted to visit (or revisit)?Morin: “One of the most surprising things to me was how many Toronto references there were, and especially all the subway stations. I’m like: ‘Is everyone’s love life happening on the green line? Because clearly I’ve been on the yellow line way too much.’”Laura: “I thought the entire book was a love letter to Toronto: it’s just all the places, the West End neighbourhoods mostly, but even down by the lake… He’s putting these Toronto places in front of people for a reason, and I just find it really interesting.”Lauren: “I’ve been to the Gardiner Museum a few times and I’ve been there for events as well, and seeing an event happen right at the beginning of the book at this place, and describing the dress code and what people are drinking, and what they’re looking at. I don’t know, it just gives you a newfound appreciation when somebody has so explicitly described somewhere that you’ve already been… There’s a line about sitting in By the Way Cafe and looking at Future’s, and he describes the very ugly mural on the wall of Futures Bakery which was like, my place. When I went to university I studied there almost every night. It was so warming to read about this very ugly- he didn’t use the word ‘ugly’ about the mural but you know it was ugly in the description. There’s no way around it.”Tahmina: “I found myself having to search some things up which is not a bad thing, because I learned a lot.”Barb: “I remember us all going to visit The Wheat Sheaf after we read Fifteen Dogs, as a sort of celebration after it won [the Giller]. I love this whole series.”Tan: “Yeah, I spend a lot of time in the Annex and Roncesvalles. So it was especially hilarious ’cause I have been to Paupers [Pub] a lot, and the other bars that are kind of around there… There’s a little paragraph about how [Tancred] was sending her photographs from around the city and I was like, ‘now I want to go see all of these places, and see what’s there.’”Morin: “My foodie life is prepared to check out all the places in the book…Bright’s Grove does exist and there is actually an Airbnb… it has a nice deck, and everything. Oh, a new place to go. They need to put together a book package.”
6. Who’s read the other books in the André Alexis quincunx? What connections or surprises did you find between the books?Lauren: “Some of them are very evident. Like Tancred is the main character in The Hidden Keys, and he’s back.”Laura: “I feel like what connects them all are these philosophical ramblings. That, again, how does he do that? Because this is a fictional story that is moving forward, there’s momentum. And yet there’s all these kind of examinations of philosophy and art, religion and love. To me it’s miraculous, really, how he does that and keeps us going through the story, while at the same time filling us with all these really big ideas to me that’s like the connective tissue of the series…I was just going to say, if anybody hasn’t read all of them I highly recommend listening to them, because André Alexis reads the audiobooks, and it’s so delightful to listen to him read. That’s how I read this one and it was your suggestion, Tan. So thanks for that. For me that’s a lot of how the humour comes through, too, in his reading of it.”Tan: “Robbie was an influential character in Pastoral. Because it was told from the point of view of his wife. She’s one of the main characters in Pastoral, so it was interesting to see him from the other side. And kind of how that had played out, and I love seeing Michael and Professor Bruno again, seeing their story continue. I thought also like the appearance of Aphrodite, kind of being at the heart of the magic. Here was similar to Fifteen Dogs, and how Apollo and Hermes were behind that, as well. I didn’t have time to check whether or not the poetry writing dog wrote about the same thing.”
7. BONUS: Tell us about a family tradition or heirloom that was (or will be) passed to you.Laura: “Guilt.”Tan: “My mom has a birthstone ring I will inherit that I’ve been coveting since I was small, because it has a giant purple rock on it. I have now learned it’s actually hard to find now…but as a kid playing in my mom’s jewelry box, it was one of my favourites.”Morin: “I’m probably getting all the photo albums. And, ‘can I have every recipe and have you write them down?’ Because that’s what I want to get passed down, cooking skills and all those secret things because [my mother] doesn’t write anything, and she doesn’t measure.”
Download our discussion questions in a handy printable for your own book club chat – clicking begins a PDF download.
* * *Did you read Ring? Let us know your answers to our ALU book club discussion qs in the comments below! And, if you happen to take a pic of your club reading Ring, share with us @alllitupcanada.It’s been quite the month reading, discussing, dissecting the ins and outs of Ring – which you can still get for 15% off, by the way – and next week we wrap things up with book recommendations for those who didn’t want Gwen and Tancred’s story to end.