The Receptionist: An Education at the New Yorker Discussion Questions

ReceptionistAs part of Bas Bleu’s 2016 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions, author interviews, or other bonus material about our Bluestocking BAM selection to enrich your reading experience—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)

Our February Book a Month selection, The Receptionist: An Education at the New Yorker, transports readers back to the acclaimed magazine’s heyday through the eyes of receptionist Janet Groth. During her twenty-one-year stint at the New Yorker, Groth forged relationships with John Berryman, Joseph Mitchell, Muriel Spark, and other literary luminaries, all the while struggling to determine her own identity as a young woman in New York during the 1950s and 60s. Less juicy tell-all, more coming-of-age tale during a pivotal era, The Receptionist offers insight into a privileged literary world and how it helped to shape one employee’s life.

  1. Groth left the Midwest to seek her fortune in Manhattan, experiencing considerable professional and personal challenges in the process. Can you recall a similar experience from your own life, when you left home for the big city or for another unfamiliar yet idealized situation? How did your leap of faith turn out? If you could do it over again, what choices might you have made differently? Which ones would you choose to make again?
  1. Groth had “behind the scenes” access to several famous writers. Do you appreciate learning about your favorite writers’ personal lives? Or do you prefer to let the work speak for itself? Has there ever been a situation when you changed your opinion of a writer’s work based on details you learned about his or her personal life?
  1. For a time in the 1960s, Groth had an African-American roommate who helped to open her eyes to the world’s diversity—and to the opposition people of color faced in America during the Civil Rights Movement. Who in your life has helped give you new perspective about a group of people whose ethnic, religious, cultural, or gender experiences are very different from your own?
  1. Several of the book’s chapters chronicle Groth’s travels abroad, thanks to the New Yorker providing eight weeks’ annual leave (four weeks paid!). Her trip to Greece proved particularly transformative: “Hardly knowing how, I set about some long-deferred self-examination. I wished, at last, to make sense of my life.” What is it about traveling that so often brings about a sea-change in life?
  1. As part of her journey of self-discovery, Groth explores sexual relationships—some long-term, others fleeting—with several men. Did this change your opinion of her? Why? How do these experiences shape her opinion of herself and her ultimate choice of mate?

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