Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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A Student of History

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A contemporary Los Angeles story of uncrossable social lines, allegiance and betrayal, immeasurable power, and the ways the present is continuously shaped by the past.

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Reading Group Guide for A Student of History

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1. Why is Rick having a hard time finishing his dissertation? How do his relationships with Mrs. W— and Fiona complicate his understanding of history?

2. Rick thinks about his family often, but never visits them. Does he seem proud or ashamed of them and of his background?

3. How would you describe the neighborhood where Rick lives? Or the neighborhood where he grew up? How do these areas differ from the area where Mrs. W— resides? What kind of picture do these places collectively paint of the city?

4. Why do you think Rick is so enamored with Fiona? And why does she seem so interested in him?

5. At one point, Rick compares the children of the wealthy and the children of immigrants. How does he see them as similar? How are they different?

6. Rick makes a series of morally ambiguous choices in his quest to keep his scholarship, and in his hopes of impressing Fiona. What do you think of these choices? Do you find them understandable? Why or why not?

7. W— speaks disparagingly about undocumented immigrants, referring to them as “illegals.” Yet she is giving and kind to her own household staff, one of whom is herself undocumented. What does this suggest about Mrs. W—?

8. W— draws a distinction between “street people” and “show people.” She also differentiates “old money” from “new money.” What does this imply about social class? Is it all about money?

9. Francois DeLorme, the famous chef, tells Rick a story about how a customer treated him in one of his restaurants. What is the significance of this story?

10. As Rick nears the end of his time working for Mrs. W—, she asks if he would like to stay on. Why does she do this? What does Rick mean to her? Do you think she cares about him, or is she driven by something else?

11. W—’s grandfather, Langley, was revered by friends and employees alike. How was he different from his descendants? What allowed for his decency? And how do his wealth-building activities look now, from the perspective of history?

12. W— has experienced huge losses in her life—including both her brother and husband. Yet she is also extremely privileged, and uses her wealth in ways that damage others. Do you find Mrs. W— a sympathetic character? Why or why not?

13. Rick says to Mrs. W— “Money can’t solve everything.” To which she replies, “Of course it can.” Do you agree with Rick? With Mrs. W—? Why?

14. How would you describe the class and race dynamics that Rick encounters on the Central Coast? How does meeting Lorena Castillo shift how Rick thinks about the wealthy families in L.A.?

15. A Student of History has been compared to Great Expectations and The Great Gatsby. What does it have in common with these novels? How does it differ? In what ways does Rick being half-Japanese make his situation different than Pip’s (in Great Expectations) and Nick Carraway’s and Jay Gatsby’s (in The Great Gatsby)?

16. W—’s older son, Bart, lives a rancher’s life in California’s Central Valley. What does Rick think of him when they finally meet? How is Bart different from his brother Steven? Why do you think he chose to leave Los Angeles?

17. Late in the novel, Rick learn Fiona’s story. Does this make her actions understandable? Do you find her sympathetic?

18. During one of their last encounters, Fiona says to Rick, “You feel bad for me?” Why does she say this? And why does she find the idea so incredible?

19. Reflecting on his time working for Mrs. W—, Rick states that “Most of the real stories have never been captured in books.” What does he mean? Do you agree? What does this suggest about our understanding of history?

20. At the end of the novel, Rick describes the ultra-wealthy as staying “well out of sight,” and as being the people who “make the world run.” Do you think he’s right? Why or why not?



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