An Unnecessary Woman Discussion Guide: Home
(From the publisher)
1. Aaliya says that her dearest friend Hannah “wrote of her need to be loved, to be desired, as a ravenous monster with an exigent appetite living in a black hole within” (p. 122). The two friends had many similarities (they were both often lonely, they both sought escape in stories, and they both struggled with insomnia), but do they both represent the same kind of person that Fadia describes when she says: “There are two kinds of people in this world: people who want to be desired, and people who want to be desired so much that they pretend they don’t” (p. 286)?
2. At one point in An Unnecessary Woman, Aaliya finds herself wondering if she’s grown too old for Beirut (p. 90). Could the novel have been set anywhere else other than Beirut? Aaliya says that the city is “too random” and that she doesn’t feel in charge of her life for it (p. 53). How does her excessive reading habit affect Aaliya’s sense of control and order?
3. In Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, the title’s question is posed from a mother to her lesbian daughter. Aaliya, whose family repeatedly insists that she just be “normal,” finds herself in a similar situation (p. 113), seeing as Aaliya is a character who seeks specialness time and time again. In what ways does she do this?
4. Aaliya talks about the psychological nature of some novels that are too concerned with explaining causation, or why characters do the things that they do. She refers to the day that her brother brought her mother to Aaliya’s doorstep: “If this were a novel, you would be able to figure out why my mother screamed” (p. 96). But Aaliya never does learn why her mother screamed. Discuss this bit of meta-commentary on the novel’s psychological function. What do novels that avoid causation narratives accomplish in their place?
5. After Aaliya was engaged to be married and taken out of school, she explains, “My only hope was to fake my way to an education” (p. 209). In what ways did she manage her self-education?
6. When Aaliya’s translation manuscripts are ruined in the apartment flood, how would you describe the responses of Aaliya’s neighbors—the women she refers to as the “witches”? Were you surprised by their responses to her distress? What does this scene at the end of the novel reveal about female friendship?
7. Given that Aaliya is someone who spends most of her time reading fiction—which consists of events that do not happen and characters who do not exist—does that explain why Aaliya believes “no nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed” (p. 155)? And is that somehow related to her thought that people aren’t defined by what they do in life, so much as what they do notdo?
8. On page 106, Aaliya confesses what she suspects her readers realized long before: that she’s never actually tried to publish any of her thirty-seven translated manuscripts. When she’s finished translating a book, she sets it aside, and doesn’t show it to anybody: “I create and crate!” Does Aaliya’s anonymity as a translator really makes her an “unnecessary” woman in her eyes? What are some of the other ways that the book suggests that Aaliya could be considered an “unnecessary woman”?
9. Aaliya tells the story of a Polish Gestapo officer who spared artist and writer Bruno Schulz because he decided that Schulz was “no ordinary Jew, but a necessary one” (p. 183). What does the anecdote imply about art’s role during wartime? What does Aaliya believe art is capable of?
10. Two of Aaliya’s favorite books are W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrantsand Ota Pavel’s How I Came to Know Fish. “What I love about them is that they deal with the Holocaust by looking at it indirectly … Both refuse to soil grief with sentimentalism, and so they are devastating” (p. 203). Later, Aaliya worries that she is becoming sentimental in her old age. Do you think that her interior observations throughout the novel err on sentiment? Or are they more defined by other qualities?
11. Aaliya is careful to emphasize how many Jewish artists, writers, and thinkers she enjoys, before she tells her readers, “Like many nation-states, including its sister pygmy state Lebanon, Israel is an abomination” (p. 195). Discuss Aaliya’s stance on the state of Israel, as a woman who has lived her entire life in Lebanon over a period of time in which both countries have seen war.
12. Aaliya has an active, nearly irrepressible sense of humor. Can you cite specific instances? Is her humor something that was supposed to distinguish her from her ill-fated friend Hannah?
13. What roles did Ahmad play in Aaliya’s life? Why does he leave the bookstore and Beirut? Compare and contrast him to the other male characters in the story, such as Aaliya’s “impotent insect” of a husband, Aaliya’s half brother, or Hannah’s lieutenant.
14. All of Aaliya’s thirty-seven translations have been works already translated from their original languages—she only does “translations of translations.” But at the end of the novel, Aaliya decides she’s ready to undertake her own translations of books initially written in French or English. What does this change say about Aaliya? At the end of the novel, she’s trying to decide between one novel written in English, Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, and the FrenchMemoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. Which do you think she will choose? What will her choice between the two books mean?
15. “Reading a fine book for the first time is as sumptuous as the first sip of orange juice that breaks the fast in Ramadan” (p. 117). What books have given you that shot of joy, a sensuous pleasure you can taste?
16. Aaliya notes at a few different instances in the novel that she avoids stories that culminate in an epiphany. “There should be a new literary resolution: no more epiphanies. Enough. Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment.” (p. 148). Does An Unnecessary Woman end with an epiphany?