This reading group guide for Our American Friend includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Anna Pitoniak. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
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Tired of covering the grating dysfunction of Washington and the increasingly outrageous antics of President Henry Caine, White House correspondent Sofie Morse quits her job and plans to leave politics behind. But when she gets a call from the office of First Lady Lara Caine, asking Sofie to come in for a private meeting[HK1]
, her curiosity is piqued. Sofie, like the rest of the world, knows little about Lara—only that she was born in Soviet Russia, raised in Paris, and worked as a model before moving to America and marrying the notoriously brash future president.
When Lara asks Sofie to write her official biography, and to finally fill in the gaps of her history, Sofie’s intrigued. She begins to spend more and more time in the White House, slowly developing a bond with Lara—and eventually a deep and surprising friendship with her.
Even more surprising to Sofie is the fact that Lara is entirely candid about her mysterious past. The First Lady doesn’t hesitate to speak about her beloved father’s work as an undercover KGB officer in Paris—and how he wasn’t the only person in her family working undercover during the Cold War.
As Lara’s story unfolds, Sofie can’t help but wonder why Lara is rehashing such sensitive information. Why to her? And why now? Suddenly Sofie is in the middle of a game of cat and mouse that could have explosive ramifications.
For fans of The Secrets We Kept
and American Wife
, Our American Friend
is a propulsive Cold War–era spy thriller crossed with a fictional biography of a First Lady. Spanning from the 1970s to the present day, traveling from Moscow and Paris to DC and New York, Anna Pitoniak’s novel is a gripping page-turner—and a devastating love story—about power and complicity and how sometimes, the fate of the world is in the hands of the people you’d never expect.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Consider the epigraph from Arthur Koestler (page vii). How does this passage set the tone of the novel? Who do you think is the “one” referenced in the quote? How is reading similar to thinking “through other people’s minds”?
2. In the opening chapter Sofie encounters Greta, who tells her to fend off a snooping journalist by feeding her a story, saying “She’s just looking for a good story. . . . Isn’t this the nature of your work?” (page 8). What do you consider the nature of Sofie’s work? How did Sofie’s perception of her work, or her purpose, change during the course of the novel?
3. “Lara Caine had made it impossible for the public to get to know her. Like the rest of America, I’d assumed things about her without really knowing
anything about her” (page 10). Does Lara Caine remind you of any real individuals in the celebrity or political sphere? Do you think the American public deserves to know the life stories of the people in the White House? Are public figures obligated to share details of their personal lives and histories?
4. At its heart, Our American Friend
centers on an unexpected relationship between two women. Would you call the connection between Sofie and Lara a friendship? What are the moments when their relationship seems to change? How do you define what makes a friendship?
5. Following Henry Caine’s second election win, Maurice and Sofie discuss the variable differences between knowing a fact, articulating a fact, and actually understanding a fact. Have you ever had a moment in your life where you’ve struggled to put something you know into words? Are there other examples in the novel where this consideration for knowing versus articulating versus understanding could be applied?
6. Early in the novel Sofie thinks to herself: “Some moments in history arrive quietly. In graduate school, we talked about the hidden turning points, which are only revealed with plenty of retrospect. Who could imagine the ripple effects of these contingencies—the heir born with hemophilia; the Austrian boy rejected from art school; the invisible mutation of a spike protein structure? But other moments in history arrive like a screaming meteorite. You can’t help but know that you’re living through something” (page 12). Have there been times in your life where you felt you were witnessing something of historical importance? Can you compare which instances felt obvious, and which arrived “quietly”?
7. Consider the novel’s structure. How did the multiple timelines and story-within-a-story contribute to your reading experience? Did you have a favorite perspective or period in Sofie or Lara’s stories?
8. The novel shares many ingredients with classic spy stories and Cold War novels from writers like John Le Carré, Graham Greene, and Alan Furst. Many of these stories center their plots on male protagonists and male spies. How is female voice and agency incorporated into Our American Friend
9. Loyalty and trust are two themes that go hand in hand throughout the novel. Consider these themes in regards to Lara’s relationship with her family, especially her father. How do Lara’s loyalties evolve alongside her trust? Who and what is Sofie loyal to throughout the novel? Is there a difference between being loyal to an individual versus loyal to an ideology or state?
10. Describing Sasha’s point of view in 1980s Paris, Lara observes: “In a world full of murky unknowns, Sasha believed in certain incontrovertible facts. The KGB was always watching, women always wanted children, and so on. He could never quite let go of those bedrock assumptions” (page 14). What other “bedrock assumptions” are at play in the novel? What certainties do these characters cling to? And how do these certainties impact their decision making, for better or for worse?
11. Our American Friend
is partially set in the 1980s, a period of open hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union (and their respective allies). How familiar were you with this period of history before reading the novel? Did you learn anything new? Did it challenge your opinion of the period or its ideologies?
12. Lara had specific reasons for choosing to tell her story through a biography rather than write her own memoir. Putting yourself in her shoes: Would you prefer to write your own memoir or share your life with a writer for a biography? If you could write the biography of someone—a celebrity, a historical figure, or even someone in your own life—who would it be and why?
13. Consider Lara’s age when she first met, fell in love with, and then lost Sasha. How do you think her actions would change if she were older, or at a different[HK2]
point in her life? Discuss the arc of Lara’s motivations throughout the novel. What were the dramatic turning points which affected her actions?
14. Maxim, Lara’s grandfather, refers to her family’s life in Paris as “living with contradiction,” in that they “must hold two ideas in [their] head at the same time . . . love
—as real as it feels—is not reality[HK3]
, and it will never alter reality” (page 115). Are there other examples in the novel of characters living with contradiction? Do you believe Maxim’s statement that love is not reality? What are the instances where this is statement is illustrated, or challenged?
15. When Ben and Sofie decide to go live in Croatia, they are both making sacrifices that have immediate and long-term consequences. How would you feel if you needed to pick up and move your life to a totally new or foreign location? If you could choose one person to share that experience with, who would it be?Enhance Your Book Club (3–5 Enhance Your Book Club Suggestions)
1. Find a recipe for the traditional Russian snack Irina makes Natasha and Lara as children, sirniki[HK4]
, or cheese pancakes, and share with the group. Try a variety of savory and sweet toppings like jam, sour cream, cheese, or fresh fruit!
2. If you’re interested in experiencing more spy drama set during the Cold War, consider watching the films Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
or Bridge of Spies
, or the TV shows The Americans
or The Company
3. Virtually visit Paris! Head to www.360cities.net
and search for the Luxembourg Gardens, or use Google Maps to follow Sasha’s journey (found on page 140) from the offices of The Spark
to the Île de la Cité and use street view to see the Notre Dame cathedral.
4. Check out one of Anna Pitoniak’s previous novels, Necessary People
or The Futures
. Learn more about both and author updates at www.annapitoniak.com
.A Conversation with Anna PitoniakQ: Congratulations on publishing Our American Friend! Can you tell us about the inspiration for the novel? Did you have any specific questions motivating your writing?
A: Thank you! The story evolved over time, but the first seed for this book was planted back in the spring of 2016 when I read a profile of Melania Trump. One detail really stuck with me: she grew up in Yugoslavia, in a Communist country where most people had very little money, but her family was well-off. Her father had a comfortable job, and he was a member of the Communist party.
I kept wondering what this would be like, to grow up with one culture and ideology, and eventually occupy the pinnacle of power in a very different
kind of culture and ideology. What would that be like? Did her values change? Did her loyalties change? Had something happened
to cause these changes?
I knew that I didn’t want to write about the real First Lady. I wanted to let my characters emerge from the imagination. So Lara Caine has a few things in common with the real First Lady, but she is also very much her own person.Q: What kind of research did you do while writing? Were you very familiar with the Cold War era or spycraft before working on Our American Friend?
A: I was already curious about the Cold War and spycraft, which is probably what spurred me to write this story! But as I began the first draft, I realized how much I didn’t
know. So I threw myself into research. I wanted to know the details of what it was like to be alive at that time, in 1980s Moscow and Paris, and what it was like to work as a spy for both Russia and for America. Most of my research came from reading, from dozens of books—biographies and memoirs and other nonfiction. But the coolest part of my research involved a visit the CIA headquarters down in Langley, and a weeklong trip to Russia. Those in-person experiences were hugely helpful.Q: Do you think you could have made a good spy? Did you have any favorite spycraft details that stuck out to you?
A: I don’t know! Some of my novelist skills might have come in handy. Making up a cover story or identity might not be that
different from writing a scene in the novel. But it takes so much courage to be a spy, to actually put your physical self on the line, to risk that danger. That isn’t easy. Spies have to be cool under pressure, and able to think on their feet. If they get trapped in a lie, they have to talk their way out of that trap.
I loved learning the details of how spies communicate with one another. They have to assume they’re being watched, which means everything happens in code. A spy might walk out of her house wearing a particular piece of clothing, or carrying a particular kind of bag, and that might communicate a very specific and urgent message to her handler. I loved that idea of secret messages hiding in plain sight.Q: It’s difficult to categorize Our American Friend into one genre! Was it hard [HK5] to pull elements of historical fiction, spy novels, political thrillers, and romance together? Did you always know what the structure of the novel would be?
A: I didn’t set out to write a specific genre; my only goal was to tell the story of Lara and Sofie in a way that was exciting, vivid, and moving. It turned out that this meant pulling from all those different categories! I tried to let it unfold as organically as possible. At the beginning of the writing process, I played around with a few approaches, but quickly realized that, in order to tell the story I wanted to tell, I needed a two-part structure: the present-day story of Sofie uncovering the mystery, and then the biography of Lara, which takes us into the origins of that mystery.Q: At its heart, Our American Friend is the story of two women from wildly different backgrounds who must trust each other. How do you see the relationship between Sofie and Lara? Was one character more enjoyable to write?A:
Their relationship definitely evolves over time. Lara is a cold and private woman married to a cruel and greedy man. At the beginning, Sofie is wary of her. But as they spend more time together, Sofie sees that Lara is more conflicted and complicated than she might appear, and that there’s a story behind this conflict. She starts to unravel the threads of Lara’s pain. Do they wind up being friends
? I’ve never been sure about that word. I think their relationship is both deeper and more fraught than a friendship.
I loved writing both women, for very different reasons. They both wound up surprising me.Q: Our American Friend explores questions of complicity, loyalty, and objectivity; as an author you must have found yourself wondering how you would react when put in either Sofie or Lara’s positions. Did you come to any conclusions? Did your position change during the course of your writing?
A: I wondered it all the time! Writing about Sofie’s journey was, actually, my way of asking myself some of those questions. Does a person like Lara Caine deserve my empathy or attention? Does telling her story imply that I “approve” of her story? Am I creating harm in the world by asking people to understand her? These are slippery questions. Even by the end of the book, I didn’t feel that I had found any answers. But I think the act of asking
those questions is still important, even if we can’t be sure.Q: Did you have a favorite scene or section in the novel which came to you most easily? Was there a part that was more difficult to write than others?
A: I loved writing the scenes between Sofie and her sister, Jenna[HK6]
. They were looser, more restful, and less pressurized. In so much of the story, a character is forced to wonder: Is this person trying to hurt me? Is this person trying to manipulate me?
But Sofie and Jenna love each other so much. Even when they disagree, the love is there. The trust is there.
The opposite also holds true: the hardest scenes to write were those in which trust is questioned. When everything feels uncertain and a character has to make an important high-stakes decision. Those scenes were very stop and start, and took a lot
of revision.Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? How did the experience of writing Our American Friend compare to your previous novels?
A: I’ve always loved reading. Books have kept me company for my entire life! When I was a little kid, like eight or nine, I dreamed of being a writer. And then, interestingly, for a long time I thought I couldn’t be a writer. That maybe I wasn’t talented or special enough. It took many years for that old confidence to come back to me—but eventually it did!
With all of my novels, I’ve done a huge amount of rewriting. It’s not until I’m finished with the first draft that I actually understand what the story is about. At that point, the draft is a mess! I have to throw it out and rebuild it from scratch. In the second draft, thankfully, things are a little easier. They move a little quicker. I finally know what I’m trying to say.Q: What do you hope readers will take away from finishing Our American Friend?
A: I hope Our American Friend
gives you a good dose of escapism. I hope it whisks you away to another world and lets you forget about the stresses of your own life for a little while! But, at the same time, I also hope that this book raises certain questions. That it makes you wonder what you might do if you were in Sofie or Lara’s shoes. A morally provocative page-turner: that’s always my goal.Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
A: My best advice is to read. To read everything! To expose yourself to writers and ideas from all different backgrounds, cultures, and genres. To read books that push your boundaries, that disrupt your understanding of the world, and that raise uncomfortable questions. To be a good writer, you first have to be a good reader and a good thinker. The learning never ends. Only when you are challenging yourself are you growing.