Publication Date: May 12, 2009
List Price US $14.95
List Price US $14.95
Susannah’s official boyfriend, Jason, is the perfect foil for her student lifestyle. He is ten years older, an antiques dealer, and owns a stylish apartment that prevents her from having to live in the seedy digs on campus. This way, she can take her philosophy major very seriously and dabble in the social and sexual freedom of 1970s university life. But circumstances become more complicated than Susannah would like when she begins to have an affair with her tutorial partner, Rob. Soon she is dating two men, missing her lectures, exploring independence and feminism with her girlfriends, and finding herself in a particularly impossible dilemma: she becomes pregnant. Forced to look beyond her friends and lovers for support, she finds help and inspiration from the lessons of Kierkegaard and other European philosophers.
A Girl’s Guide to Modern European Philosophy is a delightfully insightful, bittersweet coming-of-age romp, in which love is far from platonic and the mind—body predicament a pressing reality. It even succeeds where many introductions to philosophy have failed, by effortlessly bringing to life the central tenets of the most important European philosophers of modern times.
Excerpt from A Girl’s Guide to Modern European Philosophy
I hadn’t understood much of what I’d read in Being and Time, but I had the feeling that what Heidegger was on about was pretty mind-blowing, and could change the way I thought about everything. As far as I could fathom, he was saying that up to now, Western philosophers had put forward the incredibly stupid idea that human beings are essentially minds trapped inside bodies, somehow peering out at the world as though through a plate-glass window and wondering what’s really out there, if anything. But the reality is that we human beings find ourselves in the world, are “thrown” into it, as he put it, and have to sink or swim as best we can. We have to do things, make things, to survive: find food, shelter, and so on. We do all this without thinking: we only need to think, in fact, when some problem arises. It’s like driving: you just do it automatically, and it’s only when you notice you’re about to crash that you have to start paying attention.
So thinking, Heidegger seemed to be saying, is a kind of aberration. Before we start thinking, things just carry on, and we kind of merge into life without being conscious of ourselves as subjects separate from the world of objects and other people. Instead of being trapped inside the plate-glass window, and looking out, and wishing we could connect, here we are, “being-in-the-world,” right in the cut and thrust of life all the time, if we only knew it.
Ignore the breezy title and coy, crossed-ankles cover; beneath its slick chick-lit veneer, Charlotte Greig’s novel, A Girl’s Guide to Modern European Philosophy, is a ruminative coming-of-age tale devoid of the genre’s usual tropes. Caught at the crest of feminism’s second wave, 20-year-old philosophy major Susannah partakes of the freedoms of the 1970s — campus protests, sex with both her older boyfriend and a fellow student — but when her world suddenly capsizes, she retreats to the men on the pages of her textbooks: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Kierkegaard.
Amanda Heller, The Boston Globe
This intriguingly titled novel carries us back to Ye Olde Swinging England, circa 1970, those bygone days of bell-bottoms and non-portable telephones. Susannah Jones, the ‘girl’ in question, is a university student haphazardly studying philosophy while actually majoring in boyfriends… It’s a premise that suggests a kooky comedy of manners.
[This] coming-of-age book will teach the reader something about the practical applications of philosophy. For readers who survived the seventies–and may possibly remember those days–it will also be an entertaining read.
In her first novel, singer-songwriter and music journalist Greig examines the case of second-year philosophy student Susanna, who frequently wakes up, screaming, from disconcerting dreams. It’s not so much the demands of her course load at the University of Sussex—Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Freud and friends—as it is Susanna’s own experience with Nietzsche’s “great separation,” or the sudden realization that “everything… means nothing to you.” Her boyfriend, Jason, an antiques dealer 10 years her senior, is stingy with affection. Which helps explain why Susanna falls for Rob, a brooding yet innocent-seeming classmate who frequents the dingy campus bars, digs a good protest and lives in dilapidated communal housing. Torn, Susanna opts to date both—it’s the swinging ’70s, after all—but the back-and-forth leaves her dizzy, and when she discovers she’s pregnant and realizes the father could be either man, neither her tutor nor her girlfriends can assuage her. Fumbling through the smoky corridors and lofty ideals of academia, Susanna is, like so many student philosophers, equal parts endearing and insufferable, and even if her dilemma isn’t the most original, Greig makes it uniquely hers.
A distinctive coming-of-age tale from a talented debut novelist based in the U.K. Susannah Jones studies philosophy at Sussex University. She lives with Jason, an antiques dealer whose Brunswick Square flat offers a welcome respite from 1970s-era student squalor. Jason’s almost 30, and he provides Susannah with access to a more sophisticated lifestyle. But he treats her more like a child or a pet than the liberated woman she would like to be—or, for that matter, the thoughtful, earnestly questing person she already is. Their relationship is additionally complicated by Rob, a fellow student whose obvious interest Susannah finds herself reciprocating. She fumbles along with both men until an unplanned pregnancy forces her to make some serious, irrevocable choices. In broad outline, Greig’s debut looks a lot like chick lit. Few entries in that genre, however, are so intelligent, sincere and skillfully executed. Susannah can be as dizzy as Bridget Jones, and her youthful confusion gives the novel much of its screwball charm. But she is also utterly serious about philosophy, and the author’s use of choice excerpts from great thinkers of the modern age sets this book apart. In one passage, Greig captures both the exquisite insecurity of adolescence and its desire for radical freedom and individuality by juxtaposing excerpts from Nietzsche with a description of Susannah cultivating a perfectly careless bohemian look through hours of careful labor. In another, Kierkegaard provides a heartbreaking counterpoint while Susannah decides whether or not to go through with an abortion. The author further enriches her novel with fully formed, sympathetically delineated secondary characters. Neither Jason nor Rob is a perfect hero, and neither is a complete cad. Susannah’s friends are real people rather than social accessories. The uncertain ending may not satisfy those who read for escape, but it certainly feels true. Women’s fiction that expects an intellectually adventurous and emotionally honest reader.
1. The book begins as Susannah wakes up screaming. At this point, we have no idea why. What do we find out about her inner life as the book progresses?
2. What role do dreams play in the book? Reference the recurring image on pages 64—65 of being “in a white car traveling along a black road.”
3. On page 16, Susannah devises a way to walk all the way through a student pub without “feeling like an idiot.” She seems self-conscious and insecure. Does she become more confident as the story continues? If so, why?
4. How do Jason and Rob fulfill different needs for Susannah?
5. Compare the university environment in which Susannah studies with the company she keeps outside of school. Specifically, compare the party at Rob’s house on page 26 with the scene in the London bar on page 47. Does social class play a role? Or is it age? Does Susannah seem comfortable in either setting?
6. On page 42, a tarot card reader on the train deals Susannah an illustrated card of a jester with the words The Fool written on the bottom. What does this suggest about Susannah and her peers?
7. Susannah doesn’t divulge too much about her family. Discuss what you know about her father, her mother, and her hometown.
8. Do you think the death of Susannah’s father subconsciously influences her decisions as regards her love life?
9. How does Susannah view the different settings of her life: the student housing on campus, Jason’s flat in London, her mother’s home in Swansea?
10. What do you make of Jason’s reaction to her pregnancy? Do you think his rejection of her is forgivable? Compare this with Rob’s reaction.
11. What roles do Susannah’s friends Cassie and Fiona play in the book?
12. “Susannah turns to the great male philosophers for guidance, in the absence of help from her parents and teachers.” Is this statement true, do you think?
13. The part titles of the book mimic the curriculum for an introductory philosophy course. What do you think of this device?
14. Nietzsche is discussed in the first section, under “Short Loan,” implying that his philosophy is not very useful; Heidegger under “Reference” (more useful); and Kierkegaard under “Long Loan” (very useful). Do you agree?
15. What does Susannah learn from her discussion with Søren Kierkegaard?
16. Do you think Susannah makes the right decision in the end? Is there a right decision?
17. This novel takes place in 1974. Do you think attitudes have changed since this time?
18. The story is set in a seaside town in Britain. Do the characters behave differently than how they would in the U.S.?
19. Is philosophy useful for making life decisions? Would Susannah have done better to visit a student counselor?
20. Did you learn anything about philosophy from reading this novel?
21. In the first part of the novel, Susannah reads about Nietzsche’s idea of the “free spirit” (pp. 20—23). What is her initial response to this idea? How does her view change, and why (pp. 174—5)?
22. The book is set at a period when philosophers such as Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend were making claims that science proceeds in an irrational way (pp. 39—42, 55—56.) Do you think there is any truth to these claims?
23. How does Susannah attempt to explain Heidegger’s notion of “being in the world” in the context of Western philosophy (p. 176)?
24. Susannah sees her pregnant state as being an embodiment of Heidegger’s idea that there is “really no difference between subject and object” (pp. 214—8). Is her argument is persuasive?
25. In Susannah’s tutorial, she, Belham, and Rob discuss Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” (pp. 185—6). How is this relevant to the dilemma she is facing in her personal life?
26. Susannah sees a connection between the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and the issue of abortion (pp. 205—213, 239—241). Is this a valid way of looking at Fear and Trembling?
27. What does Susannah learn from her conversation with Søren Kierkegaard in chapter 24?
28. Do you think Kierkegaard would have regarded Susannah’s ultimate decision as a moral one?
29. By the end of the book, how useful has Susannah found the teachings of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard, respectively?
30. In your view, can philosophy help us make important decisions in our daily lives?