"Beneath the surface of a light-hearted comedy, Dinah Lee Küng addresses a wide range of serious questions - how much energy and passion is put into any lasting literary work, how literary friendships are never free from jealousy and what posterity and ideals really mean."
The London Student
Under Their Skin FOLLOW THIS LINK TO BUY ONLINE IN THE U.K.
One autumn, the serene marriage of a Swiss dermatologist to an English WHO leprosy expert is shattered by three intrusions on his Geneva practice: an American violinist marred by a birthmark; a tattooed Japanese gangster; and the doctor's old rival-in-love, now Manhattan's Botox King. Both dark satire and moving love story, this novel challenges the reader to look beyond the surface of events to see the characters weave the net of their own unmaking.
(Featured on the cover of the summer 2006 issue of The Asian Literary Review)
Ein Besuch von Monsieur Voltaire
The German translation of A Visit From Voltaire, under an imprint by Random House, Page and Turner, distributed by Goldmann Verlag
READING GUIDES FOR BOOK CLUBS
Imagine Voltaire came back to haunt YOU...
1. There are three narrative threads running throughout the book; Voltaire’s story, the narrator’s background and the comic frames of each chapter set in her new locale. What themes link each thread to the other two?
2. As the narrator repeatedly admits, she’s no match for the Great Voltaire. But in what way do her hapless travels and quest for meaning compare with Candide’s?
3. If Voltaire were still around to run his website infâme.org, what causes might he pursue? Or reject? What might he say about torture, slavery, child abuse, the war in Iraq?
4. If Emilie de Châtelet were alive today, what do you think she’d be doing? How might her balance of love, work and social obligations shift? How do you think Emilie stacks up as a “modern woman”? How does Voltaire rate as the “enlightened” partner of such a liberated woman?
5. What do you think Voltaire would say about today’s Vatican, and trends under the newly installed Pope Benedict XVI who says one of his missions is to re-evangelize Europe?
6. How well do you think Voltaire survives as a philosopher? What do you think was his greatest achievement after all?
7. Which “Voltaire” would you like to spend a month with—the ambitious social-climbing playwright whizzkid, the curious and reclusive scientist and historian in Cirey, the crotchety human rights campaigner or the “Father of Europe” on his estate in Ferney?
8. Can you compare anyone in today’s world to Voltaire?
9. What lessons does Voltaire teach the narrator by the story’s end? What might he have learned from testing twentieth-first-century waters?
10. In many ways this book is about adaptation, flexibility and maintaining a sense of humour in the face of life’s unexpected curves— no matter what your century. Think of some challenges, transitions or setbacks you’ve faced. Name the historial person who could best help see you through. (No points for Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun. Pillage doesn’t pay. You’ll have to clean up after your houseguest has left.)
Some questions to probe Under Their Skin:
1. The author toys with our ideas of conventional morality; Which character has the most rigidified moral code? Where does that lead? Who is the most “virtuous” and at what cost to others? Which characters are the slowest to judge others? Who turns out to be the weakest, by conventional standards, and why is that person rewarded?
Whose actions are the most “amoral” and what is the reasoning behind it? Discuss the moral aspects of using Japanese mafia profits to fund leprosy treatment. Or ways in which the various characters express contrition or pass through purgatorial states to attain redemption.
2.The author uses the motifs of skin distortion as a diary of man’s journey from birth to death: birthmarks, lesions, sun spots, tattoos, beauty treatments—all variations in surface appearances and even an allusion to Original Sin.
Compare how unexpected encounters with surface reflections —e.g. from a microwave glass, a pair of polished shoes, mirrors in the lift foyer or a ladies’ room, a darkened living room window, a coffee machine, an ice cream serving bowl, even the iconic Japanese tattoos— shed a different, equally truthful, light on character and action?
3. The characters who take the greatest risks, even stumble morally and recognize their human frailty, open a door to their future. Discuss how the characters who remain unchanged might be sealing their doom. In what instances did doing the “obvious thing” lead inexorably to the least desirable outcome? Isabel tells Father Shardar that “the best is the enemy of the good.” Can you think of other instances where this might be true?
4. How do the Sullivans—father and daughter— upset Roman’s Continental stereotypes of Americans? Discuss his European perception of his English in-laws. Explore how secondary character, “unsympathetic types”, become likable despite their obvious flaws, e.g. Colonel Sullivan,
Carlos Campagna, the accompanist Anton.
5. In Roman’s monologues to his cat Spaghetti, he speculates that the facts of electricity or geography remain unintelligible to an animal, but can be understood easily from “above,” just as an understanding of cause and effect in our universe eludes his limited human mind. The reader is allowed to watch “from above” as certain characters, even minor characters unnoticed in the background by the protagonists, play a pivotal role. Discuss how actions and motives which are opaque to the characters are transparent to you as the reader. Would Roman Micheli have said that this lets the reader play God?
6. Discuss how Roman's routine medical courtesies to minor characters or spontaneous acts of kindness to total strangers turn out to carry irreversible consequences. Is the author proposing the inevitability of fate, the hand of God, or a heightened awareness of each person’s actions and consequences? e.g. perhaps the most decisive plot point is the unpremeditated decision made by the mild-mannered Charles Stratford in the last chapter. Did you notice Charles in the opening chapters? His second appearance midway through? His gift to Isabel? More important, did Roman?
7. Roman experiences his flight to New York as a nightmarish descent through levels of frustration and sinister symbols to the comic damnation of his humiliating detention. What were the classical references that warned you he was approaching danger? What is the physical surrender illustrating Roman’s fall from the medical Olympus of the early chapters to his Promethian prostration by Chapter 25? How do his reflections on Jonathan’s death illustrate his internal shift in perspective on human frailty and responsibility?
8. Discuss the references and varieties of mother-child ties threaded throughout:
Isabel’s relationship to her mother Marjorie Hanford and grandmother Lily Westcott, her own childlessness, her “devotion” to anonymous children,
Roman’s memories of his Genevan matriarchy,
Shino’s thought of filial duty to his mother back in Japan,
Jonathan’s reference to his mother,
Mira’s painful break with Lorraine’s memory,
Felix’s trusting backstage observations of Mira.
9. Contrast the father-child relationships:
Roman’s diaperless illusions of fatherhood,
Father Shardar’s confusion of doctoring with parenting his patients,
Frank Norton’s ineffectual part-time parenting,
Colonel Sullivan’s blind overprotectiveness,
Isabel’s identification with her father and grandfather,
the familial bonds earmarked by the Japanese yakuza gangs’ words, kobun (“child-role”) for lower-ranked mobster and oyabun (“parent-role”) for the boss.
The tiny gesture that links Felix indisputably to Roman
10. Various metaphors portray Roman’s relationship with Mira and consider whether these images are accurate:
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Dr. Aylmer who views the imperfection of flesh and blood woman as “curable” by science
Pygmalion re-making Galatea
The Prince awakening a restive Sleeping Beauty
11. Mira’s complexities elude Roman’s naive fantasies. In fact, “Her duality unnerved Roman.” Is the author commenting on the gap between romantic infatuation and the reality of women as three-dimensional human beings? On the transition between immaturity and maturity Roman witnesses in the blossoming girl-woman?
12. Listen to Mira’s music on CD, and discuss why the author chose the Bruch for Mira's Sion debut, the Waxman for her salon performance, the Brahms for her rehearsal and the Britten for her triumphant return to the Swiss stage. Perhaps there are other musical pieces for the violin that could have illustrated the narrative as well, or better? Discuss the Carlyle quote as a reference to Roman’s “fall” into membership of the human choir singing off-key
13. Discuss the book in terms of Roman Micheli’s Catholic upbringing: in what sense does the “lovely understanding” between the Michelis actually constitute possible grounds for annulment of their marriage? Is there any legitimacy to the views of Catholic Colonel Sullivan, who will have to support the child and his mother, or the emotionally entangled Roman Micheli on Mira's suggested abortion?
14. One of Roman's patients commits an enormous crime as part of his personal moral reckoning. The beneficiary remains completely innocent of his link in this chain of events. Discuss who might be committing crimes on “your behalf” or “for the good of society” right now and the degree of your responsibility.