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Book Club Kits: The Piano Teacher

Alamance County Public Libraries offer Book Club Kits for check out to area book clubs. Each kit contains 10 copies of a book and a reading guide.

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Lynn York

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Book Summary

Wilma Mabry is a widowed piano teacher and the organist at the Methodist Church, living a simple orderly life in Swan’s Knob, NC until the day that her daughter Sarah unexpectedly arrives on her doorstep with Wilma’s little granddaughter Starling and a bunch of mismatched luggage. Sarah’s sorry husband Harper is not far behind her, and--wouldn’t you just know it?--he gets into town on the very night a young police officer is shot dead out on the by-pass. From that moment, Miss Wilma’s life begins to come undone bit by bit, like a French twist that falls down in your face because you didn’t use enough hairspray.

When all of Swan’s Knob gets wrapped up in this awful crime, Wilma’s family is sucked into the fray. Of course, it falls to Miss Wilma to straighten the whole thing out. Add to the mix Roy Swan, a fifty-ish bachelor who owns about half the town and has been sweet on Miss Wilma for a long time, and pretty soon, Miss Wilma has acquired a house full of troubles: a heart-broken pregnant daughter, a cuckold son-in-law, a confused granddaughter, and even her daughter’s itinerant lover. In the chaos that ensues, Miss Wilma finds herself making breakfast for a murder suspect, hiding erotic photographic evidence in her organ bench, providing musical accompaniment for a wedding, a funeral and an unspeakable act, going out on her first date in 20 years, and naturally, solving the crime.

Discussion Questions

  • "The whole thing got off to a bad start when Miss Wilma unceremoniously ran over a squirrel in the Strongs' driveway, right in front of the porch" (page 1). So opens The Piano Teacher. The death of the squirrel is not only a tragicomic beginning to Martha Strong's wedding, but to the novel as a whole. Discuss how foreshadowing is used to reveal Sarah's pregnancy or Lily's affair with Clem. Where else is foreshadowing used effectively in the book? How does York use levity to counter moments of tension or tragedy in the novel?
  • Fictional Swan's Knob is a small, rural southern town. Harper, comparing it to Greenwich Village and Sante Fe, finds it lacking in many respects. Sarah returns to Swan's Knob to reflect and rest. Wilma finds it claustrophobic at several points in the novel. Discuss how each character's sense of place affects your impression of Swan's Knob.
  • Both Wilma and Harper are musicians—Wilma teaches music and Harper researches it. Compare and contrast the role music plays in their respective lives. Is there any similarity between Wilma and Harper apart from their expertise in music, particularly in relation to Sarah?
  • Jonah's arrival in Swan's Knob causes a stir in the town, and affects the dynamic of Wilma's suddenly large and bustling household. Discuss Jonah and Harper's interaction in Wilma's kitchen (chapters 4 & 5) and what this scene conveys about their characters. How does York avoid stereotyping in her depiction of the Native American Jonah and the womanizing Harper?
  • What kind of reaction does the town have to Jonah's arrival? Are there undercurrents of racism evident in their behavior, or would the townspeople be suspicious of any stranger who appeared on the eve of a murder?
  • Analyze Sarah's mental state as conveyed through her actions on the day she spends by herself, from the moment she drives off in Wilma's LTD in the middle of the night, to her breakfast in the TipTop Diner, to her break-in at the home in the mountains. What important information do we learn about Sarah? What kind of a woman is she? How does she compare to her mother?
  • Discuss Sarah's relationship with Harper: in particular, Harper's betrayal of Sarah in New York City and the subsequent conception of Starling. What motivated Sarah to stay with Harper? Commitment? Guilt? Passivity?
  • Parenting is central to this novel. Discuss how its ramifications are explored in light of the following relationships: Wilma and Sarah; Harry and Sarah; Sarah and Starling; Harper and Starling; Harry's father and Lily Mae; Harry's father and Harry.
  • What imprint has Harry's suicide left on Wilma and Sarah? Discuss the factors that drove him to shoot himself—his relationship (innocent or incestuous?) with Lily Strong, the loss of his business, and his alcoholism. How differently did Wilma handle this first tumultuous chain of events, compared to her actions in the present-day?
  • Roy has obviously been enamored of Wilma for years, but for Wilma the romance comes "after fifteen years of nothing, fifteen years of not even thinking about any living man on earth. She was totally unprepared" (page 173). Discuss the development of Wilma's romance with Roy Swan. She rebuffs his initial advances, and then falls for him after their date at The Coach House. What characterizes the courtship that ensues? Compare Wilma's relationship with Roy to Sarah's relationships with Harper and Jonah.
  • "It was all new, her life, completely new and hard somehow—she had to admit that, hard—because everything, everything would have to be formed again" (page 195). How does this passage (intended to describe the effect of Roy's kiss) encompass all of Wilma's relationships? What new relationship does she form with Sarah? With Starling? With Lily Mae? And even though he's been gone for fifteen years, to what extent does Wilma alter her relationship with Harry?
  • How does Wilma transform herself over the course of the novel? Does she become stronger, more competent, less fragile, more flexible? Has she always possessed these qualities or does she merely change the way people perceive her?
  • Discuss Lily Mae Strong and her actions throughout the novel. Is Avery Spivey the real villain of the novel, or is she? Does she "suffer enough" with the death of her paramour? Or is justice really served with the arrest of Avery?
  • The car ride to the courthouse pits Wilma against Clem's killer and, in a way, allows Sarah and Wilma to come to terms with one another. How does their relationship change at this point? Does Wilma damage the "new" relationship when she accidentally acknowledges Sarah's pregnancy in front of Harper?
  • Discuss Roy's decision to keep his suspicions about Harry and Lily from Wilma. In light of the implication of incest and Wilma's adoration of her deceased husband, his silence could be considered a kindness; yet, with regards to Roy and Wilma's burgeoning romance, his secrecy might also be perceived as a betrayal. What implications does this act have upon the end of the novel? Does The Piano Teacher have a "happy" ending?