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Book club questions for Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow takes a closer look at this impactful story about three generations of a Southern Black family. There will be spoilers so for more context about the novel, check out my spoiler-free review first.
What a fantastic novel! I loved the ending so much. Joan deserves all the success, love and happiness that this world has to offer. I also enjoyed reading about Miriam, August and Hazel—each very distinct but also quite brave women.
This novel will definitely be on all the best books of 2022 lists—it will certainly be on mine for sure! I can’t wait to see what the author writes next.
Summer 1995: Ten-year-old Joan, her mother, and her younger sister flee her father’s explosive temper and seek refuge at her mother’s ancestral home in Memphis. This is not the first time violence has altered the course of the family’s trajectory. Half a century earlier, Joan’s grandfather built this majestic house in the historic Black neighborhood of Douglass—only to be lynched days after becoming the first Black detective in the city. Joan tries to settle into her new life, but family secrets cast a longer shadow than any of them expected.
As she grows up, Joan finds relief in her artwork, painting portraits of the community in Memphis. One of her subjects is their enigmatic neighbor Miss Dawn, who claims to know something about curses, and whose stories about the past help Joan see how her passion, imagination, and relentless hope are, in fact, the continuation of a long matrilineal tradition. Joan begins to understand that her mother, her mother’s mother, and the mothers before them persevered, made impossible choices, and put their dreams on hold so that her life would not have to be defined by loss and anger—that the sole instrument she needs for healing is her paintbrush.
Unfolding over seventy years through a chorus of unforgettable voices that move back and forth in time, Memphis paints an indelible portrait of inheritance, celebrating the full complexity of what we pass down, in a family and as a country: brutality and justice, faith and forgiveness, sacrifice and love.
Book Club Questions for Memphis
- The city of Memphis is a character in itself, even in the small scenes that take place elsewhere—Memphis is always present. Let’s talk about what Memphis means to each of the characters.
- The story follows four Black women of the same family throughout 70 years. Why do you think the author decided to feature such a long time span? Whose journey were you most engaged with?
- In what key ways do the four main characters—Joan, Miriam, August and Hazel—differ from each other? Did you see any similarities among the women?
- Which character do you relate to the most?
- Miriam leaves behind abusive Jax and takes Joan and her sister Mya to her childhood home in Memphis where her sister August and nephew Derek lives. But we learn that Joan suffered a violent assault by Derek when they were children. Why did Miriam still go back to Memphis despite the horrors that Joan endured there?
- In an effort to get revenge on Derek, Joan, with the help of Miss Dawn, puts a curse on him. And eventually, he’s sentenced to prison for life. Was the curse real?
- Why was art the right venue for Joan to express herself?
- Let’s talk about the love story between Hazel and Myron.
- Myron becomes the first Black detective in the city but is violently killed by the very same white police officers he worked with. What were your thoughts when you read this section?
- Miriam falls for Jax right away despite not really knowing him. His friend tried to blame the war for Jax’s explosive temperament. What is your impression of this? Do you think Jax always had this violence stewing in him?
- August has to turn her back on her dreams to care for Derek. But despite her best efforts, Derek commits multiple acts of violence. What are your thoughts about August’s storyline?
- How did the prison visit with Derek give Joan the eventual closure she needed?
- Let’s talk about the ending! What will await Joan in London?
- A big theme of the novel is resiliency. How did Hazel, Miriam, August and Joan remain resilient despite dealing with personal traumas? What are other key themes did you pick up on?
Hope you enjoyed book club questions for Memphis! Here are some more recommendations along with links to book club questions.
Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson
Another fantastic Read with Jenna pick is Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson.
In present-day California, Eleanor Bennett’s death leaves behind a puzzling inheritance for her two children, Byron and Benny: a traditional Caribbean black cake, made from a family recipe with a long history, and a voice recording. In her message, Eleanor shares a tumultuous story about a headstrong young swimmer who escapes her island home under suspicion of murder. The heartbreaking tale Eleanor unfolds, the secrets she still holds back, and the mystery of a long-lost child, challenge everything the siblings thought they knew about their lineage, and themselves.
Can Byron and Benny reclaim their once-close relationship, piece together Eleanor’s true history, and fulfill her final request to “share the black cake when the time is right”? Will their mother’s revelations bring them back together or leave them feeling more lost than ever?
Charmaine Wilkerson’s debut novel is a story of how the inheritance of betrayals, secrets, memories, and even names, can shape relationships and history. Deeply evocative and beautifully written, Black Cake is an extraordinary journey through the life of a family changed forever by the choices of its matriarch.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is one of those novels you simply must-read.
The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?
Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.
As with her New York Times-bestselling debut The Mothers, Brit Bennett offers an engrossing page-turner about family and relationships that is immersive and provocative, compassionate and wise.