Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner

Published in 2008 by WaterBrook Press. 307 pages.
2009 Salt Lake County Library's Reader's Choice.

I chose The Shape of Mercy, which had been on my to-read list since 2009, as the June read for Natalie's Book Club. Only three of the group members read the book, but the six of us who were able to meet for lunch earlier this week still had a great discussion.

Back row (l-r) - Sue, Natalie, Holly.
Front row (l-r) - Leslie, Alison, Linda.

Like Katherine Howe's The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, this novel alternates between a contemporary storyline and one set during the Salem witch trials - which I find to be a fascinating time in history. It tells of the lives of three women - Lauren, a young college student, who goes to work for Abigail, an elderly librarian, to transcribe the diary of Mercy, a woman accused as a witch in 1692. The historical aspects actually seemed to be better developed, even though that story is told only through sparse diary entries.

A work of Christian fiction, The Shape of Mercy addresses the important theme of judgment. I think I agree with a member of the book group who described the moral message as "a little heavy-handed" - but it also provided me with good food for thought. What assumptions do I make about other people? How does that affect my ability to connect with or compassionately serve them? Do my judgments ever harm others?

Just today I discovered that Susan Meissner wrote a blog from October 2008 to November 2010 related to The Shape of Mercy. (You can find it here.) As explained in the first post of the blog:
Have you ever wished the characters you've read about in a book lived on after you turned the last page, that you had a backstage pass to their lives beyond the confines of the book's pages?

Here on The Shape of Mercy blog, Lauren, Abigail, Clarissa [a secondary character], and even Mercy, will live on in posts that will appear on Mondays and Fridays. We begin where the book left off.
What a fun concept!

A day or two before the book group meeting, I jotted down some possible discussion questions while I waited at the auto repair shop for my car. We considered some but not all of these at our lunch. (NOTE: I don't consider any of the questions to necessarily be "spoilers" - but if you, like my friend Chelsea, don't want to know much about a book before reading it, come back later to read the questions.)
  • What did you think of the title? Consider the implications of the word shape as well as those of mercy. What do you think Meissner was trying to say in the novel about "the shape of mercy"?

  • Comment on the theme of judgment. Did the juxtaposition of the two storylines as illustration of this theme work for you?

  • How much did you know about the Salem witch trials before you started reading this book? What did you think about Abigail's requirement that Lauren not research anything about the trials while she was transcribing the diary? Why do you think Abigail did that?

  • Did Mercy's story's ring true to you? What did you think about its conclusion? Was it satisfying to you on both an intellectual and an emotional level?

  • Were you surprised to discover why Abigail had chosen not to marry the man she man she loved? [By the way, I am almost always surprised by such "revelations" - but one book club member said it was quite obvious.] How do their circumstances further illustrate the theme of judgment?

  • What similarities and what differences do you see among the three main characters of the novel - Mercy, Abigail, and Lauren?

  • Comment on the quality of "Christian fiction." Among things to consider: Are excellence in writing and "cleanliness" mutually exclusive in modern works of fiction? Can a book have a positive moral message without being overly focused on religious practice? Why does much fiction ignore the spiritual or religious lives of people? [By the way, I frequently avoid Christian fiction because my experience has generally been that the writing is not stellar. I'm always pleased to find a novel - such as The Secret Life of Bees - that enhances my spiritual understanding without sacrificing superb writing.]

  • Do you love the feelings behind the following passage from the book as much as I do?
    In the beginning, I [Lauren] chalked up [Abigail's] talkative moods to being a retired librarian who missed being around people who loved books. I suppose that was a small part of it. But there were other reasons Abigail pounced on any opportunity to discuss a book we had both read. Dissecting a book was the same as making sense of life. You have to find a way to interpret life, or you'll go nuts. That's her way. It is also mine.

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