This chilling psychological suspense novel—think Strangers on a Train for the modern age—explores the dark side of love and the unbreakable ties that bind two sisters together.
Felix and Tilda seem like the perfect couple: young and in love, a financier and a beautiful up-and-coming starlet. But behind their flawless façade, not everything is as it seems.
Callie, Tilda’s unassuming twin, has watched her sister visibly shrink under Felix’s domineering love. She has looked on silently as Tilda stopped working, nearly stopped eating, and turned into a neat freak, with mugs wrapped in Saran Wrap and suspicious syringes hidden in the bathroom trash. She knows about Felix’s uncontrollable rages, and has seen the bruises on the white skin of her sister’s arms.
Worried about the psychological hold that Felix seems to have over Tilda, Callie joins an Internet support group for victims of abuse and their friends. However, things spiral out of control and she starts to doubt her own judgment when one of her new acquaintances is killed by an abusive man. And then suddenly Felix dies—or was he murdered?
A page-turning work of suspense that announces a stunning new voice in fiction, White Bodies will change the way you think about obsession, love, and the violence we inflict on one another—and ourselves.
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This reading group guide for White Bodies includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jane Robins. 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.
White Bodies follows Callie, a young woman who works in a bookstore, as she watches her glamorous, talented twin sister, Tilda, visibly shrink and diminish under the domineering love of her new boyfriend. Callie, unassuming, but with sharp observational skills, acts as Tilda’s mirror.
So when the flawless façade on Tilda and boyfriend Felix’s relationship starts to crack, Callie start to think everything is not as it seems. Felix and Tilda seem like the perfect couple on the outside: young and in love, a financier and a beautiful up-and-coming starlet. But Callie watches silently as Tilda stopped working, nearly stopped eating, and turned into a neat freak, with mugs wrapped in Saran Wrap and ominous syringes in the bathroom trash.
But when she learns about Felix’s uncontrollable rages and the bruises on the white skin of her sister’s arms, Callie is so worried that she joins an internet support group – controllingmen.com – for the victims and families of women enduring abuse from their partners. However, things spiral out of control and she starts to question herself and all those around her when one of her new acquaintances is killed by an abusive man.
And then suddenly Felix dies—or was he murdered?
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. We all watch the world around us, but some, like Callie, may watch it more closely than others. What do you think accounts for this nosey, sometimes obsessive behavior in Callie?
2. What was your first impression of Felix? If you had observed the same things that Callie had as she was first exposed to Tilda and Felix’s relationship, how would you have reacted?
3. Is Callie a reliable narrator? How do you know?
4. How are Callie and Tilda’s physical differences reflected in their personalities and the roles they each play in their relationship with one another? How does this evolve over the course of the novel?
5. Do you think Callie is jealous of Tilda? Why or why not? Consider Tilda’s previous relationships and Callie’s actions toward each of Tilda’s partners.
6. After the first confrontation about Felix, Callie writes in her dossier: "When I talk to her, I make everything worse. I drive her to HIM" (p. 41). What might you have done differently in Callie's shoes?
7. How do Wilf and Daphne start to change Callie's perception of herself? How does her image of herself change in relationship to Tilda throughout the novel?
8. Callie claims that she must watch over Tilda; Tilda claims that she must protect and care for Callie. Which twin is really taking care of the other?
9. How is obsession portrayed throughout the novel? Consider how it affects Callie, Tilda, and Scarlet, in particular.
10. What role does Liam play in Callie’s understanding of Tilda? What roles do Callie and Tilda’s mother play?
11. How does Callie's outlook change as she gets deeper into the controllingmen.com forums? How do her relationships with Belle and Scarlet influence her?
12. How did you react to Scarlet’s true identity? Why do you think Callie agrees to meet Scarlet in person?
13. Does Callie get her happy ending? Does Tilda?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Keep a dossier for a week of your daily observations, just for fun, and see what you might be missing on a regular basis! Practice your powers of observation at a local park, restaurant, coffee shop, etc., or take notes on an interaction with a friend, co-worker, or family member.
2. Watch Strangers on a Train and Single White Female, and discuss with your book club. What similarities do you see to White Bodies? Which film reminds you most of Callie? Which reminds you most of Tilda? Why? Do you think they would see themselves that way?
3. “I’m reading for my close-up, Mr. Hitchcock!” Who would you cast in the film version of White Bodies? Share your ideal picks for Callie, Tilda, Felix, Wilf, Belle, Scarlet, and more, with your book club.
A Conversation with Jane Robins
What was your inspiration for White Bodies?
My biggest inspiration was Alfred Hitchcock. I wanted to write a thriller that had a highly personal, thoughtful element to it—which, in turn, infused the novel with tension and an almost claustrophobic atmosphere. For most of the novel the reader is stuck inside Callie’s head – which is not an easy place to be. Hitchcock was brilliant at creating that intense point of view. When I’m writing, I think visually, as though I’m writing a scene for a movie. I was also inspired by Patricia Highsmith and Daphne du Maurier, whose work I adore.
How did your work as a journalist and as an author of historical true crime books prepare inform or inspire you as a writer of fiction?
I don’t think I could have written a novel when I was younger, as fiction is the most difficult sort of writing for me—although I love it the best! I needed to learn the craft of writing and editing first. Journalism taught me to get to the point quickly, to delete everything that’s unnecessary no matter how proud you are of your prose, and to be careful with adjectives and metaphors—only use them if they are spot on. Writing historical books taught me how to structure a long-form narrative and how to build to an ending. A first or second draft is never good enough. I re-write everything countless times.
Were you more of an observer as a kid, like Callie? Or a performer, like Tilda? Did you ever have a dossier like Callie?
I was more like Callie, but I wanted to be more like Tilda. So perhaps my childhood was the greatest inspiration for the novel! When Callie walks around the playground at school, observing the children playing, she’s me. I have a strong memory of being about ten years old and auditioning for the lead in the school play, and I noticed two of the teachers exchange a giggling glance. I suddenly realized I was over-acting terribly. I also thought I was too plain to be the lead, so I ended up playing a sunbeam. Tilda would have won the part instead.
Do you have any siblings? Did they, or anyone else, influence the way you envisioned Callie and Tilda's relationship?
I have a brother and a sister. My sister Carol and I are close in age, just 18 months apart. I have experienced the intense bond of the sister-sister relationship and I dedicated the book to her. We actually get along brilliantly and are entirely on the same wavelength, but I do remember as I child that I thought of her as ‘the pretty’ one—more popular and social. So I tapped into that, although it was never a big part of my life as I had many other things going on! I became the rebellious one.
How did you approach writing Callie and Tilda’s dynamic as twins differently than you would have written a non-twin sister pair?
My sister, Carol, has fraternal boy-girl twins who are in their early twenties. They are very different personalities, yet they share an extraordinary bond and understand each other at a deep level. So I have observed the twins relationship and find it interesting. But what I liked most the symbolism of Callie and Tilda being twins is that it’s like all their characteristics were formed in the same womb and were just divided up in a fortuitous way. Somehow, they are two sides of one extreme person.
What do you want readers to take away from the complexity of Tilda and Felix’s relationship?
I really liked Felix, and felt sorry for him. As I was writing his character, I kept thinking how misunderstood he was just because he was odd. In my head, he wasn’t nearly as bad as Lucas made him out to be, let alone Tilda. I gave the readers a glimpse into his true character when he takes Callie to dinner at The Wolseley and she starts to doubt her assumptions about him. At the same time, I was also writing a co-dependent relationship that was invented by Tilda, but had psychological integrity. The notion of being ‘excited’ by violent extremes and by ‘proving’ you’re alive by feeling pain is very dark, but something I can relate to.
Are you interested in classic films as Tilda and Callie are? Besides Strangers on a Train, have other films influenced your writing?
I’m not a classic film nut, but like films that are gripping because of the psychology of the characters and their interactions. I adore Single White Female and Rebecca, both of which I mentioned in White Bodies, and inspired my novel. And I wrote Callie loving the Winona Ryder version of Little Women because it’s one of my favorite films, and as a child, like so many others, I desperately wanted to be Jo March.
What interests you about the anonymity of the Internet? What inspired you to bring this classic Strangers on a Train set-up into the modern era?
I happened to watch Strangers on a Train at home, and it occurred to me that it would be so much easier to swap murders these days if you did it online. I had been thinking about the line ‘the internet is where psychos find each other’ long before I watched the film, or dreamed up White Bodies and put the words into Tilda’s mouth. Apart from being a good starting point for my novel, it is also a real world worry that makes me anxious. It’s how people with a propensity for violence discover each other; it’s how internet groups build into abusive mobs.
Has anything surprised you about the process of writing fiction, vs. non-fiction?
Only how much I love it! I thought that I was happier writing thoughtful prose when I didn’t have to invent the facts as well, but it turns out that I do enjoy making stuff up! I used to think I was no good at it. Now I think that it is my (wonderful) job to transform my first drafts into something better.
What are you working on next?
I’m writing my next psychological thriller. It’s about five students at an intense writing workshop in a very beautiful, remote place—and things start to get very strange in the group. Like White Bodies, it has British and American characters, as well as some from other parts of the world.
Jane Robins began her career as a journalist with The Economist, The Independent, and the BBC. She has made a specialty of writing historical true crime and has a particular interest in the history of forensics. She has published three books of nonfiction in the UK, Rebel Queen (Simon & Schuster, 2006), The Magnificent Spilsbury (John Murray, 2010), and The Curious Habits of Doctor Adams (John Murray, 2013). More recently, she has been a Fellow at the Royal Literary Fund.
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