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"A beautiful testament to [Park’s] extraordinary talents as a storyteller…A ferocious page-turner."—KIRKUS REVIEWS (STARRED REVIEW)
From the critically acclaimed author of This Burns My Heart comes a gorgeous, emotionally wise tale about a daughter who unearths the hidden life of her enigmatic mother.
Mara Alencar's mother Ana is her moon, her sun, her stars. Ana, a struggling voice-over actress, is an admirably brave and recklessly impulsive woman who does everything in her power to care for her little girl. With no other family or friends her own age, Ana eclipses Mara's entire world. They take turns caring for each other—in ways big and small.
Their arrangement begins to unravel when Ana becomes involved with a civilian rebel group attempting to undermine the city's torturous Police Chief, who rules over 1980s Rio de Janeiro with terrifying brutality. Ana makes decisions that indelibly change their shared life. When Mara is forced to escape, she emigrates to California as an undocumented immigrant and finds employment as a caregiver to a young woman dying of stomach cancer. It’s here that she begins to grapple with her turbulent past and starts to uncover vital truths—about her mother, herself, and what it means to truly take care of someone.
Told with vivid imagery and subtle poignancy, The Caregiver is a moving and profound story that asks us to investigate who we are—as children and parents, immigrants and citizens, and ultimately, humans looking for vital connectivity
This reading group guide for The Caregiverincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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.
Mara Alencar has been caring for others her entire life. Her mother, Ana, works as a voice-over actress in Brazil, doing various jobs to care for her daughter, but it’s young Mara who supports her mother emotionally. But when Ana becomes desperate for money, she agrees to a job she shouldn’t have taken. The catastrophic results of this fateful decision change everything for Mara irrevocably.
Years later, Mara is living as an undocumented resident of the United States, working as a caregiver for Kathryn, who has been diagnosed with cancer. Her experiences grappling with life and death and caring for someone else remind Mara of what she left behind in Brazil and the ghosts in her past she’s tried so hard to escape.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Mara has been caring for others since a young age—first as a daughter to her mother, Ana, and later as the focus of her profession. How do you think these experiences of looking after others, often before her own welfare, have shaped her?
2. The mother/daughter relationship depicted in The Caregiver is a difficult one. Why do you think it’s so important to Mara to let Ana think that she provides well for her daughter?
3. Mara learns about corruption in Brazil at an early age as she eagerly waits to see which school won Carnaval. How do you think that affects her view of the world over the years?
4. As Mara makes clear, Brazil’s dictatorship was put into place by the American government, and yet she chooses to move to the US. How does she see America? Does she consider it a land of freedom and promise or a place of contradictions?
5. When Mara gets into a car accident in the present day, it’s clear that the other driver was probably at fault. Why does he react so viciously to Mara?
6. Kathryn talks about leaving her house to Mara in her will. Why do you think Kathryn is so eager to think of Mara as a daughter? Why do you think Mara is so resistant to the idea?
7. One of Mara’s roommates, Bruno, specifies that he did not arrive in the United States illegally—he simply overstayed his visa. Why do you think this distinction is important to him?
8. While a person can enter a country illegally, or overstay a legal visa, Mara questions how a person can actually be illegal. Why is the questioning of this well-accepted terminology important?
9. When Mara finally confronts Police Chief Lima, he insists that she take a bag of money and promise never to contact her mother again. Why do you think Lima is so desperate for Mara to take the money? Why do the calls stop after that confrontation?
10. Mara didn’t get to choose whether to be a professional caregiver. What career choice do you think she would have made if it had been up to her? Do you think caregiving comes naturally to Mara?
11. Discuss Kathryn and Mara’s reasoning for needing—or not needing—a reason to want to live. Is the desire to stay alive reason enough? How do you think Mara’s response to Kathryn, that Kathryn is too young to die, relates to Mara’s inability to accept her mother’s death?
12. Why do you think learning the truth about Ana devastated Mara to such a degree, to the point where she leaves Brazil and everything she knows for a new life in America?
13. Mara never discovers the identity of her father, though he is mentioned occasionally throughout the book. Why doesn’t Mara want to learn more about him or who he is?
14. The author of The Caregiver, Samuel Park, died shortly after finishing the book. Why do you think he chose to make caregiving during illness the center of this novel, knowing that he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2014?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Samuel Park passed away in 2017. Read his New York Times essay “I Had a 9 Percent Chance. Plus Hope.,” which is included in the back of the book, and discuss the effects of Park’s illness diagnosis, treatment, and recurrence on the book as a whole.
2. Is there a time in your own adult life where you felt like important choices were made for you, rather than making the decision for yourself? Take turns explaining a time this happened to you and how you dealt with it.
3. The Caregiver provides a glimpse of life in Brazil under a dictatorship. Read another book set during that time, such as City of God by Paulo Lins, and compare the depiction of Brazilian life in the two novels.
4. Lazarus isn’t in the book very much, but he plays a pivotal role in Mara’s life. He seems more accepting of his father’s crimes and misdeeds than Mara is of her mother’s. Discuss what this book may have been like if Lazarus had been the main character.
Samuel Park was an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago. He graduated from Stanford University and the University of Southern California, where he earned his doctorate. He is the author of the novella Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the writer-director of a short film of the same name, which was an official selection of numerous domestic and international film festivals. He is also the author of the novels This Burns My Heart and The Caregiver. His nonfiction has appeared in TheNew York Times. Born in Brazil and raised in Los Angeles, he split his time between Chicago and Los Angeles. In April 2017, Samuel Park died of stomach cancer at the age of 41 shortly after finishing The Caregiver.