Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Woman in the Fifth includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Douglas Kennedy. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Harry Ricks is a deeply troubled man on the run. After a messy affair, a broken marriage, and a disgraced end to his career as a film professor, Harry ends up impoverished and fleeing to Paris, trying desperately to live his fantasy of writing a novel in the city of his dreams. Upon arrival, Harry realizes the city is nothing like the one from his fantasy and he finds himself living in a virtual flophouse on the wrong side of town. The one light in this bleak world is a chance meeting with Margit Kadar, a mature, beautiful, and charming woman living in the Fifth Arrondissement. They begin a torrid, fierce affair. But something very sinister surrounds Harry, as many of his enemies are befallen by sudden misfortune and death. As the bodies begin to stack up, Harry must confront the ghoulish truth about his past, his future, and the one woman who cares for him in this strange city.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Harry Ricks is a deeply flawed individual. We know virtually nothing about his life at the onset of the novel, except that he is on the run from his past. At the outset of the novel, did you think he had any redeemable character traits? How did your opinion of him change as you read more?
2. No one is warm or friendly to Harry upon his arrival in Paris. Harry feels “. . . an ominous sense that I was about to detonate at any moment. . . . The doctor was right: I had broken down.” This does not assuage the coldness and downright cruelty he experiences by the citizens of Paris. How much of this instant distaste toward Harry is deserved?
3. Paris is a city that has lived in Harry’s imagination for some time. “[It] had been my dream for years; that absurd dream which so many of my compatriots embrace: being a writer in Paris.” What do you think the draw to Paris is for writers? How dangerous is it to build up a fantasy for something one has no direct experience with? What are some of the ramifications when fantasy and reality collide?
4. We learn that Harry Ricks has a lot to prove to himself and the world around him. Despite the troubles and chaos of his life, Harry believed he would “. . . find a quiet place in which to get it all down on paper, and finally demonstrate to the world that I was the serious writer I always knew myself to be. I’ll show the bastards is a statement uttered by someone who has suffered a setback . . . or, more typically, has hit bottom.” He doesn’t want to write a novel out of inspiration, but out of vengeance against the world he believes has wronged him. Can art be used for vengeance? How productive is this philosophy?
5. The writer Richard Bach comments: “Argue your limitations and sure enough they are yours.” Harry Ricks is a man drowning in self pity and depression. He continually reminds himself he is worthless and deserves nothing. “It no longer mattered what people thought of me. Because I no longer mattered—to anyone else, let alone myself.” How much does his initial attitude affect the course of his existence in Paris?
6. Harry Ricks escapes his troubles at the cinema. “The majority of my free time outside my chambre was spent haunting all those darkened rooms around town which cater to film junkies like myself. . . . Every day, I’d spend at least six hours at the movies.” What do you think the draw of the cinema is for Harry? How does watching films help him to escape life’s problems?
7. Harry arrives in the Tenth Arrondissement, a seedy, crime-filled neighborhood in Paris, in dire financial peril. After some time, he discovers a secret stash of money, an amount that could seriously change his financial and psychological situation. But instead of keeping the money, he decides to send it to the wife of the one man who showed him kindness, Adnan, who was recently deported and jailed. Why does he do this? What does this say about Harry and his judgment of his own character? Does Harry receive any repayment for his good act?
8. Harry works nights at a very shady job for sinister individuals, but decides he must do it because of his horrible financial situation. He realizes “. . . that I might be landing myself in a situation which could be potentially dangerous, or could jeopardize my future freedom. But I found myself being won over by a bleak, but consoling thought: Nothing matters.” What sort of freedom comes from this nihilistic emotion? Is hitting bottom really freedom, or just another sign of debilitating depression? How dangerous is this notion?
9. The only breath of fresh air that enters Harry’s bleak existence comes when he meets Margit Kadar, a mature, beautiful, and charming woman. They begin a tempestuous romance full of passionate sex and raw emotive dialogues. But after a few meetings, Margit bluntly pushes Harry away. “Do yourself a favor, Harry. Walk out of here now and don’t come back.” Why does Margit try to push Harry away? What is she sparing him from?
10. Margit discusses the human desire for vengeance with Harry. “The standard moral line on revenge is that it leaves you feeling hollow. What bullshit. Everyone wants the wrongs against them redressed. Everyone wants to “get even.’” (p.192) Do you agree with Margit’s philosophy on vengeance? What prevents people from taking such actions into their own hands? Do we deserve our “vengeance”?
11. Right after Harry’s sexual tryst with Yanna, he contemplates telling Margit about his encounter. But once he arrives at her front door, she knows about it immediately. How do you suspect she knew of this instantly? What gives Harry away?
12. Ghosts are everywhere in The Woman in the Fifth, both metaphorically and physically. All the characters are haunted by their pasts, and in Harry’s case, he’s haunted by a real ghost. What do these “ghosts” represent? Does it resemble the philosophy that “there are certain tragedies from which we never recover. We may eventually adjust to the sense of loss that pervades every waking hour of the day. We may accept the desperate sadness that colors all perception. We may even learn to live with the loss. But that doesn’t mean we will ever fully cauterize the wound or shut away the pain in some steel-tight box and consider it vanquished.”
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The Woman in the Fifth employs a strong narrative style, telling a story rife with human flaws, personal vendettas, and tormented pasts, all spiced with plenty of tension and gritty violence. Harry Ricks is a stranger in a strange land, overwhelmed by the seedy world of the Tenth Arrondissement.
Another author who shares this protagonist-based, fast-action style is famed American crime author Elmore Leonard. Pick up some of his classic crime thrillers such as Get Shorty, Freaky Deaky, Cuba Libre, and Killshot if you’ve developed a taste for this addictive style of pop literature.
2. Harry Ricks is comforted by the dark rooms of the cinemas across Paris. Jean-Luc Godard says: “Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world,” while another famed director, Roman Polanski, comments that: “Cinema should make you forget that you are sitting in a theater.” Pedro Almodóvar explains: “I . . . wanted to express the strength of cinema to hide reality, while being entertaining. Cinema can fill in the empty spaces of your life and your loneliness.
Imagine the films Harry Ricks would discuss in his classroom in Paris. Rent some of the great films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran to see just what these great directors are talking about.
3. The city of Paris is as varied as life itself, each arrondissement representing another form of the city’s great cultural legacy. Harry Ricks confesses “the Fifth was my preferred terrain.”
It is also known as “The Latin Quarter,” the literary and artistic soul of the city itself. The Fifth has been the home of many artistic luminaries, such as Ernest Hemingway, Paul Verlaine, Albert Camus, Gertrude Stein, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Research the history of this world-famous section of Paris to understand more of Harry’s romantic love affair with this unique and creative neighborhood.
A Conversation with Douglas Kennedy
There are remarkable twists and turns in The Woman in the Fifth. When the initial idea came to you, did you foresee these plot upheavals from the onset? What was the process that led you to the discovery of this narrative?
I never plot out a novel in advance. I start with the general premise—the narrator and his or her central dilemma—and the rest arrives during the actual writing. In the case of The Woman in the Fifth I was coming out of a difficult juncture in my life when I knew my marriage was failing, and I was beset with the onset of midlife melancholy. One of the manifestations of this was six months of profound insomnia that saw me walking the streets of Paris frequently half-the night whenever I spent my week per month in that city. Eventually I was able to put this melancholia and insomnia behind me. And a long-overdue divorce in 2009 rendered me a much happier man. But The Woman in the Fifth came out of this strange, bleak juncture in my life. As such it’s a novel that reads like a perpetual nuit blanche—an endless sleepless night, full of dread and misgiving.
The Woman in the Fifth is a novel of many forms. It applies the psychological narrative of Henry James mixed with the hard-boiled crime fiction style of Raymond Chandler. It also blends themes of the American expatriate experience with the 19th century ghost story. Could you give some examples of other novels that may have inspired this amalgamation of themes?
There’s a brilliant novel by Geroges Simenon called Three Bedrooms in Manhattan. It concerns a French actor whose marriage has just combusted and who finds himself wandering the shadowy, down at heel, neon-silhouetted world of 1950s New York. Simenon captures so superbly this nocturnal world of mid-century Manhattan; a time when the city really did wear a perpetual five o’clock shadow. Simenon’s portrait of my hometown (Manhattan) as a sinister construct—and of a man grappling with serious emotional demons—began to bounce around in my imagination. And the result was this novel, which is so wildly and radically different from Simenon’s, even though it was initially inspired by it.
Harry Ricks finds only coldness and strife in his first days in Paris. As a man who has spent considerable time in Paris, did you encounter any of the coldness Harry experiences upon your Parisian own arrival in Paris?
I decided to write a novel against the cliché of the American in Paris. I’ve read far too many of those sorts of novels, in which the character arrives in the City of Light and inhabits a picture postcard of chic apartments, chic restaurants, chic women, and (god help us) trying to write a novel in his local uber-chic café. The Woman in the Fifth subverts all these clichés and brings the reader to a very different, but profoundly real Paris that is, very much, on the other side of the tracks.
The descriptions of the Tenth Arrondissement are so full of life that one can feel the grit underneath one’s nails while reading the passages. What personal experiences had led you to write so truly about this “other” side of Paris?
The novel was a huge hit in France—selling over 600,000 copies and receiving largely terrific reviews. But you would not believe the number of Parisians who came up to me after its publication and asked me how I had discovered this alternative Paris. My reply was a simple one: “On foot.” I happen to be quite the flaneur—a wanderer of cities (something I developed during my Manhattan adolescence), and the Paris depicted in the novel, especially the tenth arrondissement where Harry lands, is a very real Paris: grubby, tough, anti-picture-postcard. I decided to use Paris as a nightmare landscape, and one in which Harry rarely emerges into the city during the morning. As such the novel is set in a largely nocturnal and haunted city.
Harry and Margit have an interesting dialogue regarding modern attraction to the act of shopping and consumerism in general. As Margit says, “It’s what people do with their time now. It’s the great cultural activity of this epoch—and it speaks volumes about the complete emptiness of modern life.” Could you elaborate on this particular philosophy?
Shopping has, alas, become so much of the way we define ourselves in the modern world. We are all enslaved to the idea that buying stuff will make us happier. In the novel, Harry’s impecunious state—and Margit’s lack of resources as a translator—means they are both outside of the “luxe” aspect of Paris which exists throughout so many corners of the city. Harry is very much living a grubby day-today existence until he begins to enter Margit’s world, which is not all that it seems.
Infidelity is a continual theme in your works. As Harry laments after his affair with Yanna, “Do we ever learn from our mistakes? Not when it comes to sex. That’s the one arena of bad behavior in which we are recidivists, over and over again.” (p.206) Harry cheats on his wife Susan, Susan cheats on Harry. Is infidelity inevitable? Is betrayal somehow sewn into the human experience?
Well, put it this way: infidelity is an essential component of the human emotional palette. As long as the notion of a committed relationship exists there will always be infidelities because human sexuality is such an interesting minefield of desires, needs, fears and contradictions. As such, with the promise of fidelity must come the possibility of straying, of betrayal, of seeking comfort elsewhere. Infidelity is so much the third-rail vis-à-vis love and marriage—and as all novelists deal with human mess, so infidelity is such a compelling subject with which to grapple.
Another interesting conversation between Harry and Margit concerns the essential nature of American morality versus the French methodology of “compartmentalization.’”Accept that—as Dumas said—the chains of marriage are heavy and, as such, they often need to be carried by several people.” (p.000) Margit also criticizes American morality, which she claims as hypocritical finery.” Could you discuss the essential differences between French and American culture in regards to human relationships and marriage?
Put simply: in America we rarely compartmentalize. We also believe there is a price is to be paid for bad behavior, especially as you also have to live with yourself thereafter. In France there is far greater compartmentalization—the idea that, within an individual life, there are hidden recesses which need not intermingle with each other. Granted, that’s a sweeping generalization. But one thing is very clear to me after a decade of living part-time in France: sexual guilt is not the same issue in France that it is in my own country, and I play with this moral gulf throughout my novel.
The parlay between Inspector Jean-Marie Coutard and Harry Ricks is a cat and mouse game of information desired and withheld. There is a parallel between these character’s verbal jousts and Raskolnikov’s and Inspector Porfiry’s interactions from the Russian classic Crime and Punishment. Did the Dostoyevsky classic influence these themes of a man wrestling with his own guilt under suspicion?
Of course anyone who writes a novel about guilt, self-incrimination, and fear of authority must bend the knee in the direction of Crime and Punishment. It remains the benchmark work when it comes to delineating the way that the possibility of violent malfeasance is within us all—and how so much of life is lived under the existential fear of being exposed for what you really are.
In the short story “Le Horla” by Guy de Maupassant, a man is physically dominated by a creature bent on ruling over his decisions in the physical world. This is similar to Harry’s predicament, as his decisions are dominated by Margit’s schedule of meetings that he cannot break, or face the deaths of those he cares about most. Do you have an attraction to these 19th century ghostly tales of men trapped by supernatural creatures? What do you believe the metaphor for these “ghosts” really are?
My interest in ghosts center around a very basic belief: more than anything, we are all haunted by ourselves.