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BKMT READING GUIDES
The Age of Miracles: A Novel
by Karen Thompson Walker
Hardcover : 288 pages
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NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
People ? O: The Oprah Magazine ? Financial Times ? Kansas City Star ? BookPage ? Kirkus Reviews ? Publishers Weekly ? Booklist
With a voice as distinctive and original as that of The Lovely Bones, and for the fans of the speculative fiction of Margaret Atwood, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles is a luminous, haunting, and unforgettable debut novel about coming of age set against the backdrop of an utterly altered world.
“It still amazes me how little we really knew. . . . Maybe everything that happened to me and my family had nothing at all to do with the slowing. It’s possible, I guess. But I doubt it. I doubt it very much.”
On a seemingly ordinary Saturday in a California suburb, Julia and her family awake to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the rotation of the earth has suddenly begun to slow. The days and nights grow longer and longer, gravity is affected, the environment is thrown into disarray. Yet as she struggles to navigate an ever-shifting landscape, Julia is also coping with the normal disasters of everyday life—the fissures in her parents’ marriage, the loss of old friends, the hopeful anguish of first love, the bizarre behavior of her grandfather who, convinced of a government conspiracy, spends his days obsessively cataloging his possessions. As Julia adjusts to the new normal, the slowing inexorably continues.
Amazon Best Books of the Month, June 2012: In The Age of Miracles, the world is ending not with a bang so much as a long, drawn-out whimper. And it turns out the whimper can be a lot harder to cope with. The Earth's rotation slows, gradually stretching out days and nights and subtly affecting the planet's gravity. The looming apocalypse parallels the adolescent struggles of 10-year-old Julia, as her comfortable suburban life succumbs to a sort of domestic deterioration. Julia confronts her parents' faltering marriage, illness, the death of a loved one, her first love, and her first heartbreak. Karen Thompson Walker is a gifted storyteller. Her language is precise and poetic, but style never overpowers the realism she imbues to her characters and the slowing Earth they inhabit. Most impressively, Thompson Walker has written a coming-of-age tale that asks whether it's worth coming of age at all in a world that might end at any minute. Like the best stories about the end of the world, The Age of Miracles is about the existence of hope and whether it can prevail in the face of uncertainty. --Kevin Nguyen
Q&A with Karen Thompson Walker
Q. In The Age of Miracles, you envision a natural phenomenon that threatens the entire world. This "slowing" is global, yet you decided to focus on Julia. Why?
A. Julia's voice--the voice of a young woman looking back on her adolescence--came into my head as soon as I had the idea of the slowing. It was the only way I could imagine writing the book. Adolescence is an extraordinary time of life, a period when the simple passage of time results in dramatic consequences, when we grow and change at seemingly impossible speeds. It seemed natural to tell the story of the slowing, which is partly about time, in the context of middle school. It was also a way of concentrating on the fine-grain details of everyday life, which was very important to me. I was interested in exploring the ways in which life carries on, even in the face of profound uncertainty.
Julia felt like a natural narrator for this story because she listens more than she speaks, and she watches more than she acts. I think the fact that Julia is an only child is part of why she's so observant. Julia also places a very high value on her friendships, and is unusually attuned to the subtle tensions in her parents' marriage, which increase as the slowing unfolds.
Q. The details of how such a slowing would affect us and our environment are rendered quite realistically. How did you get these details right?
A. No one knows exactly what would happen if the rotation of the earth slowed the way it does in my book, so I had some freedom. I did some research at the outset, but I came across many of my favorite details accidentally. Whenever I read an article that contained a potentially relevant detail--anything from sleep disorders, to new technologies for growing plants in greenhouses, to the various ways people and governments reacted to the financial crisis--I would knit it into the fabric of the book. After I finished the book, I had an astrophysicist read it for scientific accuracy, which was an extremely nerve-racking experience. I was relieved by how many of my details he found plausible, but made some adjustments based on what he said.
In general, I wanted my book to seem as real as possible. I recently read a Guardian interview with the Portuguese writer JosÃ© Saramago, who said that his books were about "the possibility of the impossible." He explained that even if the premise of a book seemed "impossible," it was important to him that the development of that premise be logical and rational. That's exactly the way I wanted The Age of Miracles to function.
Q. Like Julia, you grew up in Southern California, where natural disasters are always looming. Do you think this influenced you in writing of The Age of Miracles?
A. I grew up in San Diego on a cul-de-sac of tract houses much like the one where The Age of Miracles takes place. In most ways, California was a very pleasant place to grow up. But it could also be a little scary. I remember how the sky would sometimes fill with smoke during fire season, how the smoke hung in the air for days at a time, burning our throats and turning everything slightly orange. I remember the way the windows rattled at the start of every earthquake, and the way the chandelier above our dinner table would swing back and forth until the shaking stopped. I sometimes couldn't sleep at night, worried that an earthquake or a fire would strike at night. But when I think of those years now, I realize that my novel grew partly out of my lifelong habit of imagining disaster.
If I've given the impression that I was constantly afraid as a child, that's not right. In fact, one of the things I remember most vividly about living in California is the way we mostly ignored the possibility of danger. We always knew that the "big one"--the giant earthquake that scientists believe will one day hit the region--could strike at any time, but mostly we lived as if it never would. Life often felt idyllic: We played soccer, we went swimming, we went walking on the beach. A little bit of denial is part of what it means to live in California. Then again, maybe that's also just part of being alive. I really wanted to capture that feeling in The Age of Miracles.
We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it.
We did not sense, at first, the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin.
We were distracted, back then, by weather and war. We had no interest in the turning of the earth. Bombs continued to explode on the streets of distant countries. Hurricanes came and went. Summer ended. A new school year began. The clocks ticked as usual. Seconds beaded into minutes. Minutes grew into hours. And there was nothing to suggest that those hours too weren’t still pooling into days, each the same, fixed length known to every human being. ... view entire excerpt...
Discussion Questions1. As readers, why do you think we’re drawn to stories about the end of the world? What special pleasures do these kinds of narratives offer? And how do you think this element works in The Age of Miracles?
2. Julia is an only child. How does this fact affect who she is and how she sees the world? How would her experience of the slowing be different if she had a sibling? How would her experience of middle school be different?
3. How much do you think the slowing alters Julia’s experience of adolescence? If the slowing had never happened, in what ways would her childhood have been different? In what ways would it have been the same?
4. Julia’s parents’ marriage becomes increasingly strained over the course of the book. Why do you think they stay together? Do you think it’s the right choice? How much do you think Julia’s mother does or does not know about Sylvia?
5. Julia’s father tells several crucial lies. Discuss these lies and consider which ones, if any, are justified and which ones are not. Is lying ever the right thing to do? If so, when?
6. How would the book change if it were narrated by Julia’s mother? What if it were narrated by Julia’s father? Or her grandfather?
7. Why do you think Julia is so drawn to Seth? Why do you think he is drawn to her?
8. Did you identify more with the clock-timers or with the real-timers? Which would you be and why?
9. The slowing affects the whole planet, but the book is set in southern California. How does the setting affect the book? How important is it that the story takes place in California?
10. How do you feel about the way the book ends? What do you think lies ahead for Julia, for her parents and for the world?
11. The slowing throws the natural world into disarray. Plants and animals die and there are changes in the weather. Did this book make you think about the threats that face our own natural world? Do you think the book has something to say about climate change?
12. If you woke up tomorrow to the news that the rotation of the earth had significantly slowed, how do you think you would respond? What is the first thing you would do?
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