Conscience is Alice Mattison’s latest (2018) novel, and I think it’s a great contender for a book club read. It’s rich with ideas and ambiguous about who’s to blame, which makes for meaty discussion. The story centers on the decades-long marriage between Griff and Olive, two mid-life people who came of age during the 1960s. They were active in the Vietnam War protests. They each made potentially life-altering decisions back in their early 20s, but the stories they tell themselves from that era haunt their contemporary lives. When a book about it resurfaces, all the old ghosts reappear. Can either ever let the past go? Can anyone?

Who Would Be Interested?

I think this book is a good choice for book clubs that like to unpack human relationships, especially marriage. An advantage here is Alice’s story is split between the past and the present. The reader is able to see how and why events that happened decades ago never really go away. You’ll be able to debate who handles it better, and how people might overcome (or not) history.

If you’re fascinated by political movements, this could be a book for you. The inciting incident occurs during an increasingly vigorous opposition to the Vietnam War. Even if this isn’t your club’s era, our present-day partisan politics will feel analogous, yet different in notable ways. In my opinion, you can talk about movements and protest without getting into the weeds of our current politics, if a peaceful book club meeting is what you’re going for!

Book Club Questions for Conscience

  • Griff and Olive have old, complicated memories resurrected when Bright Morning of Pain once again is opened. How do each of them deal with this history? Is one more right than the other? Is it understandable—or not—that it’s still such a touchy subject? Why?
  • Despite decades passing, people are the same. Or are they? How have Olive, Griff, Zack, and Val changed? Or not?
  • Is Olive self-conscious? Does she think of her life and nature as pedestrian, especially compared to Helen’s? How does she let dissatisfaction affect her life? Does she?
  • The book is called Conscience, and it’s an obvious theme. Each character’s conscience is tested at work, in their private life, or in their past, and we the reader have an insight into everyone’s moral dilemmas. Who is the moral center of the book? Who do you think has the biggest conscience? Who has the biggest failing? Explain.
  • The book is primarily about Olive and Griff’s marriage, but their entire relationship is bound to a turbulent time and friendship involving Helen. As much as the past looms over their present, isn’t everyone’s present informed by their past? Does history ever die? Can people ever get over things and move on? Why or why not?
  • Griff spends a lifetime being haunted by his own violent act from his youth. He doesn’t forgive himself, but is his action justified? Is there ever justification for violence? Why or why not?
  • Helen went from a sensitive child to a passionate young woman to a radical. Olive admires Helen in many ways, but is Helen at all admirable? Was her commitment to the anti-war effort justified or did she simply go crazy? Is being a radical ever justifiable? Why or why not?
  • Could Olive have “saved” Helen? What about Val?
  • Val fictionalized and, in some ways, glorified Helen’s violent act. Do writers have the right to change history? Is there a moral imperative to tell “the truth”? Why or why not?
  • Why did Olive tell Val Helen’s story? What do you think Olive wanted from it? Should Olive have been surprised with the way the book turned out?
  • Can any serious political person have a private life? Helen doesn’t think so. Olive more or less drops out after she gets pregnant. What do you think?
  • We are currently in a partisan era, and while there have been some big protests movements like the Tea Partiers in 2010 and the Women’s Marchers in 2017 and beyond, it’s not comparable to the 1960s. Why are our protest movements different today?
  • What is Jean’s role in this book? How does she highlight Griff and Olive’s strengths and weaknesses? What are her own?
  • Should Jean’s organization allow overnights? How did Conscience raise your own consciousness about homelessness and how it’s dealt with?

We also did an interview with Alice about her book, which you can find here.