‘Woman on Fire’ Book Club Guide
“Every shoe I have ever created is to honor the memory of my mother, Anika. To never forget that walk. She held her head high as they laughed at her. And people, neighbors, and others in town who I thought were her friends threw things at her—tomatoes, garbage, even shoes. She saw me up in the window…. We had one moment, one last exchange. She saw my face pressed to the glass and smiled courageously. That smile told me to be brave no matter what. And then she was gone as if she never existed….” —Woman on Fire
Award-winning author Lisa Barr’s latest novel, Woman on Fire, follows ambitious young journalist Jules Roth as she tracks down an elusive masterpiece stolen by the Nazis more than half a century earlier. With its strong female characters and well-researched look into the art world, Barr’s page-turner explores provenance and ownership of Nazi-looted art and asks how far one should go to reclaim a family treasure.
Join us on Thursday, April 7, at 7 p.m. ET as Hadassah Magazine Executive Editor Lisa Hostein interviews Barr about Woman on Fire and her extensive research into the complex history of Nazi-looted art and how the search for restitution and family treasures impacts people today. Register here.
Local book groups are a vital part of Hadassah for many members. If your chapter doesn’t already have one, now’s the time to start! We encourage groups to have their own discussions about Woman on Fire after the virtual event. To facilitate those discussions, we present the following discussion guide.
Book Club Questions
- Woman on Fire largely shifts between the perspectives of two strong-willed women—Jules Roth, an ambitious young journalist, and Margaux de Laurent, a brilliant albeit ruthless art dealer and heiress. Discuss the similarities and differences between the two as well as their final showdown. Are they a good match as protagonist and antagonist, and why?
- Jules and Margaux are not the only determined women in the novel. Author Lisa Barr introduces readers to Elizabeth Roth, a successful attorney and Jules’s mother, and Lilian Dassel, a Holocaust survivor with a secret. How do these women impact the plot and affect others while defining their own paths in life?
- Explore the family ties that run throughout Woman on Fire and how those connections propel the novel’s plot. How do family secrets and trauma influence the personalities and choices of the different characters, from Margaux and Jules to Ellis and Adam Baum?
- Ellis, Lilian and Margaux make choices that hurt themselves and those around them in memory of a beloved parent or grandparent. Do descriptions of Margaux’s bond with her grandfather impact your impression of her as the villain of the book? Do you think that Ellis’s decisions made in the name of his mother, who was murdered by the Nazis, are as manipulative and cruel as Margaux’s?
- Ellis keeps many secrets from his family. Do you know of survivors who hid their past or had difficulty disclosing their suffering during the Holocaust? Why do you think Ellis waits until the end of his life to reveal his true background to his family—and the world—even as he keeps the name of his mother alive through his career as a world-renowned shoe designer? Why does Ellis hide his sexual orientation and how does that impact his family?
- All three leading male protagonists are recovering addicts. Adam, Ellis and Dan Mansfield had all become dependent on drugs and/or alcohol even while rising to the top of their respective fields—art, fashion and journalism. Why do you think Barr decided to write them as addicts?
- World War II and the Holocaust ended nearly eight decades ago. Why has this period of history made such an impact on the literary world, and why do you think that Nazi-looted art is still front-page news?
- Discuss the complicated issues around art restitution and ownership of looted pieces of art. Should famous masterpieces be given back to families, to perhaps never be viewed again by the public, or should they remain under the auspices of museums and institutions? Do Ellis and Margaux both have a legitimate claim to Woman on Fire—and if so, whose claim is stronger and why? What about Lillian? Does she have the “right” to help decide who ultimately wins ownership of Woman on Fire?
- The fictional character Carl Geisler is inspired by real-life art collector Cornelius Gurlitt, son of Hitler’s “art thief” Hildebrand Gurlitt. Discuss how Carl’s collection of Nazi-looted art was an open secret in the German government. Margaux believes she is justified in stealing Geisler’s treasure trove of art, rationalizing that it is not a crime to rob a thief. Where should the line be drawn between the pursuit of justice and the hunt for revenge?
- Revenge is indeed a powerful theme in Barr’s novel. Each character grapples with it. Who do you think takes vengeance too far at the expense of their own happiness, and why is that price tag worth it to them?
- Discuss the end of the novel. Why do you think the author made Ellis unable to ultimately see the painting of his mother? What do you think of the plaque that is affixed to the painting, Woman on Fire? Was Jules right to both remain quiet about Margaux’s mark on the piece, yet make sure that Charles de Laurent was acknowledged?