In the Introduction to the book Marjorie’s
husband, Timothy Noah, admits to subverting Randall Jarrell’s
meaning by casting Marjorie as “The Woman at the Washington
Zoo.” How is Marjorie like and unlike the woman of the poem’s
Also in the Introduction, Tim describes Marjorie’s “unrelenting
refusal to accept fraudulent surface reality and her remarkable skill
at finding the hidden truth that lay beneath.” How does this
sensibility reveal itself in her portrait of Richard Darman? Of Barbara
Marjorie’s subject matter evolves throughout
the book—from Washington personalities to marriage, family
and illness and finally, to Marjorie herself. How does your view
of the author change as the book progresses?
In “Entomophobia” Marjorie defines
the “physics of motherhood” as the opposing forces
of “maddening disorder, the constant unexamined fear”
on the one side, and the “blessedly equal force of …wonder”
on the other. How does this tension play out in the last section
of the book? How does it play out in your own life?
Marjorie argues that most American women foster
the hope that there is “An Answer” to the dilemma of
work and family. But she accepts that there is a fundamental, irresolvable
tension in working motherhood, writing: “guilt, I now think,
is the tribute that autonomy pays to love.” Do you agree?
In “The Alchemist” Marjorie paints
a portrait of her mother as self-denying. How is her mother also,
to some extent, selfish? How did Marjorie chose to live her life
differently? How are these two life views illustrated through their
relationships with food?
In “Hit by Lightning”
Marjorie describes the fury and frustration of knowing that her
time is finite, while at the same time acknowledging that “the
knowledge that time’s expenditure is important, that it is
up to you, is one of the headiest feelings you will ever feel.”
What does she mean by this?
Among the many of life’s tensions that
Marjorie illuminates, is the struggle between hope and realism—both
within herself and embodied in the roles she and Tim take on during
her illness. Do you see these same roles played out in your own
Marjorie writes, “Forced into a corner,
I’ll choose truth over hope any day.” Would you? She
then adds, “But….my body enacted some innate hope that
I have learned is simply part of my being.” Do you agree
that hope lingers inside all of us on some unconscious level, no
matter how pessimistic we may try to be?
In “The Random Death of Our Sense of
Ease” Marjorie struggles with having to explain to her little
boy that many events simply don’t happen for a reason. Has
there been an event in your life that made you feel that “there
is no logic at all to some of the worst blows that life metes out”?
Marjorie writes of having cancer, “You
live life the same, except with more pancakes.” Have you
been in the situation of having to live with a painful reality?
If not, how do you think you would cope? How would you explain
it to your children?
Marjorie writes with remarkable candor of
her friends’ sometimes ghastly reactions to her illness.
Does reading her account change the way you might understand or
approach a friend experiencing grief or illness?
In “The Halloween of My Dreams” Marjorie
writes, “It made me hugely sad to see that my escapes from
the taskmistress of literalism are still so rare and hard-won.” What
does she mean by this? Do you feel you approach life as a realist
or do you frequently indulge, as she does in this final moment,
Read a Q&A with Timothy Noah,
editor of The Woman at the Washington Zoo
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