Book Club Questions

Want Michelle to join your book club discusion of Il Bel Centro? She'd be happy to! Local appearances are in person, others via Skype or Facetime, all are complimentary. Contact her at


These are questions that can help further and deepen the experience of reading Il Bel Centro: A Year in the Beautiful Center. I've been wanting to provide readers with reading and discussion questions for some time, but every time I tried to write them, my therapist-self took over and the list looked much more like ideas for group therapy. So I was thrilled with Charlotte Hamilton, who is leading a discussion on IBC for her Arizona book club, offered to help and drew up a list of questions. She actually thought some of my "group therapy masquerading as discussion" queries could lead to a resonant book club experience, so I kept the ones with the Charlotte seal of approval. 

If you want a forum for discussing these questions, but can't convince your friends to read the book, check out the IBC discussion group a reader started. It's a great forum for thinking about the questions and getting ideas from others. Otherwise, I'm happy to have Gabe send your friends a message cajoling them that they should read the book, too!

1) What did you particularly like or not like about Il Bel Centro: A Year in the Beautiful Center (IBC)? Was it what you expected? If you have read other memoirs of expat experiences, was IBC more similar or different than those books? Why?

2) Did you feel that the book’s tone or character changed over the course of the year? If so, what did you notice and what do you think those changes meant or reflected?

3) Have you ever wanted to “leave it all behind” and do something completely different for a time? What was it that you dreamed of, what about you made that dream uniquely yours, and what prompted you to move forward with enacting your dream or what caused you to release the dream? Are there transformative experiences that you still want to have? What keeps you from pursuing them? Do you share your dreams aloud? Why or why not?

4) Do you feel it is right to force children to participate in a parent’s dream? The year was a difficult one at times for each of Michelle’s children, do you feel that parents have an obligation to put their dreams on hold while they have children in the home? Why or why not?

5) If you had to move abroad with children, would you make the same decision Michelle did to enroll those children in the local public school, or would you seek out an International School? Why? How do you think you would have dealt with Gabe’s spanking or Siena’s sarcastic teacher? What changes in the children can you attribute to their experience in school?

6) Some people say IBC’s daily format makes for swift reading, some people think it’s clunky and slows down the momentum—how do you feel the daily format impacted the book itself and your experience reading it?

7) Michelle and Keith chose to bring their cats with them to Italy, a choice that often surprises people.  If you were to leave your home for a year, would you bring your pets? How would that make the experience harder and/or richer?

8) Before reading IBC, what did you think of when you heard about Quakers? What did you learn about Quakers in reading this book? Do you think Michelle’s Quaker orientation came through her writing and living, or do you feel her spirituality was confined to those specific times when she was reflecting on Quakerism and its difference from Catholicism?

9) Some readers note that Spello is practically another character in the book. Would you agree? How would you describe Spello?

10) The April 18th entry, which was originally published with the title “A Place at the Table,” is one that readers often point to as a section that highlights the difference between their community and the Spellani community. Would you agree? Which parts of IBC do you think dramatize the difference between your community and Spello? Were there times when reading the book that you looked at your community with new eyes, and realized that there were aspects of your community that you thought were universal, but are actually place-specific? Did you find yourself appreciating the beauty of your community more in reading IBC, or did you have moments of valuing your community differently?

11) Michelle and Keith attended a Communist dinner, how do you think the history of communism in Italy makes that different than the same event would be in the United States? What is it like for you when you sit down at a table of people whose political views differ from yours? How much of what you hear and how you respond is based on your preconceived notions? Would you say that Michelle was open to those new ideas, or closed? Would you be the same? Why or why not?

12) Food was an important part of Michelle and her family’s experience. Was the book too centered on food?  Is food important to you? Do you think food opened any doors for Michelle? What interests of your own do you think could open doors of connection when you travel? Were there any culinary experiences that Michelle had that were particularly compelling? Which recipes do you want to try or have you tried?

13) Michelle described her anxiety and fears. Does anxiety ever get in the way for you in travel or social situations? Do you agree with Michelle’s conceptualization of herself and Siena as shy?

14) Some readers feel like the frank description of Michelle’s anxiety and shyness made the book feel authentic, and helped Michelle, as a character, feel known to the reader as well as explicating some of their own feelings about themselves. Other readers suggest that it makes the book mired in a pity-party, where Michelle languishes in navel-gazing at her insecurities, which slows down the book and makes it drag. What are your thoughts?

15) Describe the main characters of the book, including minor characters that you enjoyed. Who do you feel the greatest affection for, and who would you like to sit down with over a pizza?  Why? How do feel each character changed over the course of the year, if at all?

16) If you could easily spend a year abroad, would you want to? If so, where would you want to go? Why? What would be important about that choice for you? How do you think the experience would change you?