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Marzipan and Magnolias
Marzipan and Magnolias is a charming, poignant and humorous story that traces Elizabeth Lancaster’s complex relationship with her somewhat eccentric mother Ruth. The relationship becomes even more complicated when Elizabeth refuses to acknowledge the early signs of her own incurable illness.
Growing up in a family of boys, Elizabeth struggles to maintain her independence in the face of her mother’s intense love for her only daughter. When Elizabeth realises her dream of living overseas, Ruth pulls away emotionally, fearing that her daughter will never return. The tension between them deepens when Elizabeth falls in love and becomes engaged to Martin, who is German. Upon their eventual return to Australia, Elizabeth endeavours to break through the emotional barriers her mother has set up, as well as deal with the unwelcome onset of her own strange and frightening medical symptoms.
Elizabeth Lancaster’s memoir is the winner of the inaugural Finch Memoir Prize. Selected for its literary quality, Marzipan and Magnolias was applauded by the judges for the author’s warm and humorous portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship.
For Book Club Reading Notes
Reading Group & Book Club – Questions for discussion
1. ‘For our purposes, we define a memoir as a truthful account of a life, in whole or part, told by its subject.’ – Rex Finch, Publisher, Finch Publishing. Elizabeth Lancaster writes very candidly in her memoir. How easy or hard do you think it would be to write a truthful account of your own life?
2. ‘One of my favourite festive treats was chocolate-coated marzipan, a speciality of Lübeck, near the Baltic Sea. I kept my stash in the hotel room and nibbled away at it between meals.’ What is the bittersweet significance of marzipan for Elizabeth? And what does the reference to magnolias in the title signify? If you were to write a memoir of all or part of your life, what would be the title?
3. ‘When I felt the pressure building up inside me, I wrote. It was like releasing a valve, allowing me to return to my usual role, unencumbered for a while.’ And, ‘Suddenly I want to reach out to all these women, to show solidarity, maybe even compare monkeys.’ Is the genre of memoir part therapy or part confession – or both?
4. Grief and loss are major themes in the book. Elizabeth says, ‘Why did it matter that I hadn’t known [my father had died]. Why did it matter that there was no funeral.’ In trying to make sense of death, is Elizabeth trying to make sense of her life? Do you think Elizabeth’s mother’s behaviour is odd or understandable?
5. ‘For the first time since my diagnosis I was really angry with the world.’ And, ‘I made another deal with the devil. I could see with piercing clarity that all I wanted was to be able to look after my kids.’ In dealing with her illness, Elizabeth moves through the stages of grief. Anger and bargaining are but two. How does Elizabeth come to terms with her illness? Does illness and death challenge the faithful as well as the faithless?
6. ‘I wondered why Mum and I were engaged in our own Cold War.’ Elizabeth’s relationship with her mother becomes more strained the more Elizabeth moves away. Why does Elizabeth’s mother distance herself from her daughter? As a woman, how does our relationship with our mother define us?
7. ‘I had that oddly familiar sense of being an outsider.’ The theme of being an outsider is a recurring one. Why does Elizabeth feel like this? Is her mother to blame?
8. ‘Before now I’d never thought about how I’d want my own garden to look. I’d never even realized it was important to me.’ How does an interest in gardening unite Elizabeth and her mother? Why do we try to impart our love for something to our children?
9. An ‘overseas adventure’ is a rite of passage for many generations of Australians, including Elizabeth and her mother. Has this been a transformative experience for you? Have you ever fallen in love overseas?
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