Reading Group Guide: The Necklace

This reading group guide for The Necklace includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Claire McMillan. 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

    • Always the black sheep of the tight-knit Quincy clan, Nell is cautious when she’s summoned to the elegantly shabby family manor after her great-aunt Loulou’s death, where she learns that she’s been made the executor of the estate. An outsider in the eyes of the tight-knit Quincy clan, Nell’s cold reception from the family grows chillier when they learn that Loulou has left Nell a fantastically valuable heirloom: a stunningly ornate necklace from India. More than just a piece of jewelry, the necklace links Nell to a long-buried family secret. This engrossing novel interweaves a present-day family drama with an ill-fated Prohibition-era love triangle and delves into the secrets, passions, and tragedies of a uniquely American family.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

    • 1. When we learn that Nell has inherited a necklace, we can’t help but immediately form an image of it in our minds. Do you recall how you initially pictured the necklace (before Nell discovers it and describes its ornate appearance in full)? How do descriptions of the Moon of Nizam compare with what you originally envisioned?

 

    • 2. The novel alternates between two timelines: a present-day narrative and a storyline set in the Roaring Twenties. Which setting and/or plot did you enjoy more as a reader, and why?

 

    • 3. What was your first impression of Nell? How did your feelings toward her change over the course of the novel?

 

    • 4. Traveling through Europe and Asia on a “grand tour” was something of a tradition among wealthy young men in the early twentieth century. Do you relate to Ambrose’s desire for adventure abroad? How did you react to his decision to leave May behind?

 

    • 5. Put yourself in May’s shoes. Given what we observe of social propriety in her upper-class world, would you have made the same choice to stay behind? Why or why not?

 

    • 6. Does Ambrose’s social privilege and wealth affect your impression of his character? If so, in what way? How does he rail against the expectations of his class, and how does he succumb to them?

 

    • 7. We learn that Ambrose perceives Ethan as his father’s “favorite son,” while he sees himself as the recipient of only his father’s disapproval. May sees things differently, though, saying: “He loves you because you do all the shocking things he won’t” (page 264). Which assessment do you think more accurately represents the Quincy family dynamic, or do you think there’s truth to both interpretations?

 

    • 8. Revisit the story that Ambrose reports to have told the maharaja’s son in order to obtain the necklace (pages 163-166). Now that we know he in fact paid a substantial sum for the necklace instead, what do you think is the meaning of Ambrose’s story in the context of the novel? Why would May interpret the sad conclusion as a “happy ending”?

 

    • 9. During a private horseback ride, May tells Ambrose that “Love is an action[.…] It’s not something preserved in glass” (page 210). Contemplate this profound statement in the context of the novel’s primary love triangle.

 

    • 10. What was your reaction to Louis’s first proposal to Nell? Did you trust his motivations at this moment in the narrative? Why or why not?

 

    • 11. By the novel’s end, the necklace no longer belongs to Nell, nor to any other Quincy, for that matter. In fact, Nell realizes that the necklace represents “a chance to right a wrong” (page 272). How do you feel about the ultimate fate of the necklace?

 

    • 12. Contemplate the Virginia Woolf quote that opens the novel. In your mind, how does this quote reflect the major themes of the story?

Enhance Your Book Club

    • 1. Embrace a Roaring Twenties theme for your book club discussion. Immerse yourself in the novel’s Jazz Age atmosphere. Serve Prohibition-inspired cocktails. Look up the recipe for a sidecar, invented at the Ritz in Paris in 1922 and Nell’s choice of drink at the modern-day speakeasy with Louis. Other Jazz Age favorites include a gin rickey and the aptly named old fashioned. Not feeling up for mixology? Serve some bubbly instead.

 

    • 2. Consider a follow-up book club discussion to compare and contrast F. Scott Fitzgerald’s

The Great Gatsby

    • with Claire McMillan’s depiction of the Jazz Age, or cap off the night by watching a film adaptation of

The Great Gatsby

    • . Choose either Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 modern version starring Leonardo DiCaprio, or watch Robert Redford in the title role alongside Mia Farrow in the 1974 adaptation.

A Conversation with Claire McMillan

The Moon of Nizam is a fictional creation, but it’s inspired by a real piece of jewelry: the famed Patiala Necklace. How did you develop the specific design and ornate details of your invented necklace?

    • I became interested in Indian jewelry when I lived in New Delhi, India, for six months in 2001. Female adornment, whether bindis or kohl, whether laq bangles or diamonds, is an everyday part of life there for women of every economic background. I visited the gem collection at the National Museum and subsequently bought books on the history of jewelry and the different styles. The emphasis in India is usually on the artistic craftsmanship of a piece and not on the straight commodity value of the stones in the setting. The back of almost all jewelry is enameled with traditional meenakari that outwardly doesn’t show, but is meant to be a pleasure for the wearer to enjoy.

 

    • The maharajas often had significant gems in their collections combined with some of the best examples of jewelry artistry, often in the same piece. Some of the largest and finest stones in the world have come out of Indian mines, specifically the Golkonda diamond mine in Hyderabad. As such, Indian royalty has had their pick of both the best gems and the best craftsmen for literally centuries.

 

    • While living in Delhi, I traveled extensively through Rajasthan and toured some of the maharaja’s palaces, as a number of them are open to the public. Some are now hotels, often with an off-limit wing still inhabited by the royal family if the family has managed to hang on to the estate. Frequently on view in these palaces were large formal portraits of previous maharajas wearing their lavish jewels. Some of the jewels were on display, and some of the jewels had been sold, and some were just missing and no one knows where they are, even now. The mysteries of those missing stones started a fascination in me.

What drew you to the historical time period that you explore in this novel?

    • In 2006 my family moved into my husband’s family’s farm, which was built by his great-grandfather in 1921 as a country house for parties. It serves as inspiration for the Quincy farm, though my house is not as grand, large, or lavish as the one in the book. Because the house had been occupied by two generations of the same family, it had never really been cleaned out fully. When we moved in, we found all sorts of things from every different decade. One of the things we found was my husband’s great-grandmother’s scrapbook that she kept for the first few years she lived in the house. Looking through it felt like a direct glimpse back into the twenties. At their many parties they always played games, everything from sack races and egg-and-spoon races to baseball and horseback riding. The sepia photos of flappers in diaphanous drop-waist dresses, adults playing nursery games while drinking cocktails, and men in black woolen bathing suits intrigued me. The scrapbook initially drew me into the time period and provided inspiration for the book.

Why did you choose to tell the past narrative from Ambrose’s perspective, as opposed to delving into the psyche of our modern-day heroine’s mother, May?

    • My husband has little patience for stories about his ancestors, but I’ve found generally that in-laws, especially in-laws who are writers, have a higher tolerance for family lore. The journals of Amasa Stone Mather and books on the Mather family came to me courtesy of marrying into a family that is related to the Mathers.

 

    • Amasa Mather kept travel journals and wrote letters during a trip around the world in 1907, a grand tour where he shot hundreds of animals in Africa and Asia. He brought home three, which have hung in the front hall of my house ever since. I’m not a fan of taxidermy, but I’ve agreed not to exit them in the name of marital harmony.

 

    • Amasa’s journals and letters were privately bound and published by his father after Amasa’s early death in 1920 from influenza. Amasa was a family star and favorite, and they were all bereft when he died so young. After reading the journals, I was a little in love with him myself. I attended a lecture by a Mather family scholar who confessed that she, too, fell a little in love with Amasa as she did her research. He was such a compelling person that I had the idea for my hero, and I never really considered writing the book from May’s perspective.

 

    • The Ambrose of the book is an intimate creation in comparison to the real Amasa. In writing Ambrose I could make up his internal life and motivations and create his actions in service to my plot in ways that I could never know or do with the real Amasa.

You practiced law until 2003; how did your own experiences as a lawyer shape and/or inform Nell’s character? Why did you decide to immerse your heroine in this profession?

    • Nell needed a sturdy leg to stand on when facing the Quincys. She was starting out at a disadvantage by being the black sheep, so I wanted something to balance that. Making her a lawyer bolstered her and helped drive a few of the plot points in the book. I practiced complex corporate litigation for six years and that gave me a hazy enough knowledge of both estate law and provenance law to know how much I didn’t know when writing this book. I researched and tracked down experts about certain legal plot points in the book, including interviewing an internationally recognized provenance lawyer as well as the head curator of a major museum.

You cite or make reference to several literary giants in the early pages of your novel, from Virginia Woolf to Ralph Waldo Emerson. From which literary classics (if any) did you draw influence for this novel?

A Room of One’s Own

    • is a huge solace to me and continually bucks me up and gives me permission to be a woman writing. Of course I have to mention

The Great Gatsby

    • , one of my very favorite books and the quintessential Jazz Age novel. I also drew inspiration from Ian McEwan’s modern masterpiece

Atonement

    • , which helped me think about the way stories in a family can be distorted by individual perspective and differing agendas. And I greatly admire Donna Tartt’s

The Goldfinch

    • for the way she illuminates how objects become important to an individual and how they gain and change in meaning as they travel along with a life.

Who is your favorite writer?

    • May I name a few? Daphne Du Maurier, Roxane Gay, Andrea Lee, Zadie Smith, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Meg Wolitzer, (the other) Elizabeth Taylor, E. M. Forster, William Maxwell, and of course Edith Wharton, whose

The House of Mirth

    • inspired my first book,

Gilded Age

    • . There are many more. My sister once said that going to a bookstore with me is like going to a grocery store with anyone else. I always leave with a haul, and I need books for different moods—for breakfast and for lunch and for dinner. Books provide a different but no less essential kind of sustenance.

Your “works cited” page points to substantial academic research. Describe your research process, and how you came upon so many rich primary sources. How much time do you dedicate to research for your novels?

    • As you can maybe tell from the above answers, I didn’t set out specifically to research this novel. The book grew out of my organic interests and experiences. I was doing the research in the years leading up to the writing, though I didn’t realize it at the time.

 

    • That said, news stories about jewel heists or missing works of art always catch my eye. It’s revelatory to think that in this world of global connectedness, priceless art and antiquities can go totally missing. Additionally, as a former lawyer, whenever I see a story about an object being repatriated I want to understand the exact legal and diplomatic mechanics of how that works. When I started writing the book, I delved more deeply into the legal arguments surrounding repatriation.

 

    • From there, I began writing. To move a story along, whether set in the present or the past, character is the driver. “Character is plot and plot is character,” wrote E. M. Forster. It’s a tautology, but true, in that it expresses how closely the two are joined. I was writing trying to bring my characters to life. When I was done with the initial draft, I went back and researched to verify things and to make the context realistic. Actual research in the traditional sense didn’t drag as I was looking for specific answers. The long part was the years leading up to the writing.

Can you give us a sneak preview of your next book?

    I’m currently working on another novel, part of which will be set in France during the reign of Louis XVI before the revolution. Again, this topic is the product of long fascination with this time in history both in the US and in France, with Paris in general and Versailles specifically, and with many of the famous women at court such as Marie Antoinette, Madame du Barry, Vigée Le Brun, and Rose Bertin, to name a few.

 

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