Book Club Questions: This Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee

In 1818 Geneva, men built with clockwork parts live hidden away from society, cared for only by illegal mechanics called Shadow Boys. Two years ago, Shadow Boy Alasdair Finch’s life shattered to bits.

His brother, Oliver—dead.

His sweetheart, Mary—gone.

His chance to break free of Geneva—lost.

Heart-broken and desperate, Alasdair does the unthinkable: he brings Oliver back from the dead.

My friend and I were absolutely thrilled to read this book after delightedly tearing through Lee’s second novel The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue earlier this year (my best read of 2017). Much like The Gentleman’s GuideThis Monstrous Thing is unique and imaginative, with enjoyable characters, LGBTQIA representation, and a delightful new take on a familiar period of history. I highly suggest reading this book if you are a fan of intertextuality, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, narrators who somehow keep managing to shock you with just how poor their poor decisions are, and really just a thoroughly good time.

Discussion questions below the cut!

In this book, Mary explains the Prometheus subtitle of Frankenstein by referencing Prometheus’ creation of humans from clay. However, most readers (and many scholarly works) assume the Prometheus subtitle refers instead to his theft of fire from the gods for the benefit of mankind. What difference does each version make in our interpretation of Shelley’s novel? Is there one version which you prefer?

Alasdair himself comments on how many of the characters in This Monstrous Thing say the right thing at the wrong time – such as Mary Shelley admitting to having written Frankenstein or when Alasdair attempts to kiss Mary by the lake. Do you think there would ever have been a “right time” for Alasdair to tell Oliver that he was responsible for his death? What if you yourself somehow ended up in Alasdair’s situation–would you have told Oliver immediately after he was resurrected? Never?

In Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein (via Robert Walton) is telling much of the story until the creature interrupts him to tell his own version of events, directly challenging Victor’s justification for his actions up to that point. Unlike FrankensteinThis Monstrous Thing is told entirely from Alasdair’s perspective. Is there any way in which Mackenzi Lee still includes challenges to his point of view without using Shelley’s frame narratives? If so, who specifically is doing the challenging?

The majority of the characters in this book exist or act counter to Alasdair’s impressions and expectations of them. Alasdair is critical of the small-mindedness of Geneva’s citizens regarding clockwork prosthetics, but it could also be argued that he is small-minded in his own way. Why do you think it’s challenging for Alasdair to look beyond his initial assumptions? What about his character at the beginning of the book is limiting his views?

Alasdair is furious with Mary for the harm that her novel creates by being based upon the real events of his and his brother’s lives. At what point is a real life story “owned” by an author? For instance, think of a memoir writer such as David Sedaris or a stand-up comedian like Mike Birbiglia, Sarah Millican, or John Mulaney (all of whom draw primarily on their own lives and the lives of those around them for material). Frequently their stories paint their own selves in a less-than-positive light, but the same can also be said for some of the friends, family, and acquaintances they include. What do you think counts as “fair use” of stories from the lives of those around us? Where do you draw the line on what is appropriate and what is not?

In Frankenstein, Victor is propelled predominantly by a desire for knowledge (or possibly just bragging rights), while in This Monstrous Thing we see Alasdair propelled in his resurrection of Oliver predominantly by grief and a desire to fix his own mistake. Usually we can pretty well agree that Victor definitely should not have made the creature in the first place. Do you believe the same can be said for Alasdair, or do his motivations complicate the situation? Explain.

Frankenstein is a Romantic novel (as well as a Gothic one), although almost all other famous Romantic literature from the time took the form of poetry. While there has been plenty of debate over what the hallmarks of Romanticism really are, a general consensus agrees on the individual’s freedom from society and its rules, the power of nature, and the superiority of imagination and beauty to reason. Do you see any of these Romantic trademarks in This Monstrous Thing? If you do find them, are they portrayed positively or negatively? And if you can’t find them, why do you think Mackenzi Lee would have made that choice?

With the advance of technology and medical knowledge, we are now able to keep humans alive for much longer than we would have been able to in the past–and, in some cases, even revive them once they are technically dead. Are there any times in your life when you’ve heard of a new science advancement related to the human body in some way and thought “we’ve gone too far”? Whether you have or haven’t, where would you draw the line as far as what we “should” be doing? Where does your line come from? (For instance, in This Monstrous Thing, many people’s line comes from Christianity.)

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