THE PURE GOLD BABY

Margaret Drabble

“Achingly wise . . . Admirers of Marilynne Robinson will find themselves very much at home in this book.” —Wall Street Journal

Jessica Speight, a young anthropology student in 1960s London, is at the beginning of a promising academic career when an affair with her married professor turns her into a single mother. Anna is a pure gold baby with a delightful sunny nature. But as it becomes clear that Anna will not be a normal child, the book circles questions of responsibility, potential, even age, with Margaret Drabble’s characteristic intelligence, sympathy, and wit.

more …

“Achingly wise . . . Admirers of Marilynne Robinson will find themselves very much at home in this book.” —Wall Street Journal

Jessica Speight, a young anthropology student in 1960s London, is at the beginning of a promising academic career when an affair with her married professor turns her into a single mother. Anna is a pure gold baby with a delightful sunny nature. But as it becomes clear that Anna will not be a normal child, the book circles questions of responsibility, potential, even age, with Margaret Drabble’s characteristic intelligence, sympathy, and wit.

less …
  • Mariner Books
  • Paperback
  • October 2014
  • 304 Pages
  • 9780544228030

Buy the Book

$14.95

indies Bookstore indies Bookstore

About Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble is the author of The Sea Lady, The Seven Sisters, The Peppered Moth, and The Needle's Eye, among other novels. For her contributions to contemporary English literature, she was made a Dame of the British Empire in 2008.

Praise

Feelings of age, of history, and of hindsight permeate the book…The novel’s true preoccupation is social history, and it powerfully evokes the changes of recent decades.—The New Yorker

“Moving and meditative…I found a kind of somber bravery in the story of this unwavering, intelligent woman and her guileless and beautiful child. I'm so glad that Margaret Drabble, like her characters, just decided to keep on going.” —Meg Wolitzer, NPR's All Things Considered 

“The Pure Gold Baby is a closely observed group portrait of female friends, a patient insight into the joys and pains of motherhood, and an image of how society has changed and how it has not.” —Harper's

“Achingly wise…Lamenting and steely, gentled by compassion. Admirers of Marilynne Robinson will find themselves very much at home in this book.—Wall Street Journal

Discussion Questions

What is a pure gold baby? What did you think of the title before reading anything about the book? What did you think after reading the jacket? Did your perception change after you finished the book?

In the opening two paragraphs, the narrator shares

Jessica Speight’s sudden joy when

she sees the

“special” African children.

The question of fate and Jessica

’s destiny

become a focus. What role doesfate play in this novel?

We experience

Jessica’s story from the perspective of

her friend. Why do you think the author chose this angle? Would employing the first-person point of view have been an equally good choice? Why or why not? How would the story have been different?

“We lived in an innocent world,” the narrator states at the beginning of the story (9). What does she mean? How does this statement apply to Jessica? How is your world the same as hers? How is itdifferent?

Jessica worries about Anna

’s

chances for success. People with birth defects or mental deficiencies havealways struggled to find acceptance. Has society’s

view of them become more kind and helpful? What examples can you offer to show how people with disabilities have succeeded? Are there any other books you have read about children with disabilities? How did

they differ from Drabble’s book in

their presentation of

parents’ roles and the opportunities available to the kids?

Based on your reading, what is your opinion in the debate over whether

“to educate special children inintegrated classes within the mainsteam system or by themselves in separate institutions” (53)?

Jessica states that

“the camera . . . always lies. And colour photography cannot choose but to lie. Wordswork harder than pictures; reading is harder than looking”

(61). Do you believe Jessica? Which do youthink is more powerful: pictures or words? Why?

Jessica often mentions Wordsworth and comments on his use of the word

idiot.

Jessica thinks that the phrases

special needs

and

learning difficulties

are acceptable but also that better phrases must exist,especially for Anna. What better words or phrases can you suggest? Do words like these, labels for people and their unique conditions, cause any unnecessary preconceptions? Explain. Why are people sosensitive to words?

References to writers who had a sibling or child with special needs, like Jane Austen, William Wordsworth, and Pearl S. Buck, add to the story. How do these references influence you? How do these references affect your views of Anna and of

Jessica’s attitude?

From Anna’s birth and every day after, Jessica worries a

bout the possibility of Anna outliving her. Pearl Buck, the author of The Good Earth, expressed the same fear in her journal when she wrote,

“I would

have welcomed death for my child and would still welcome it, for then she would be finally safe”

(163).

How is Jessica’s fear different from any parent’s fear of losing a child? 

The narrator describes the visit to Wibletts and the sight of the letter that William Wordsworth sent to Felix Holden. The poetry of Wordsworth inspired Holden to help the

“Simple

Minded.” What inspires

you to help others?

Drabble uses certain words and phrases,

like “I lost my mother, I lost my father, and I am alone, alone,alone” and “Uluntanshe.

A wanderer with no aim in life,”

as a poem or song might use a refrain: they link memorable moments and find meaning in life. How successful are these refrains? What significant meanings do they create?

Through the narrator, Drabble expresses the paradox of aging: “I don’t know why life seems emptier

when one is older, even when it is full. It thins out, like the hair of

one’s head” (246). What creates this

paradox as we age? How does Jessica learn to cope and accept her fate? As she ages, her thoughts return

to the Professor. The narrator states that “she is beginning to have a sense of an ending” (210). Is this an

allusion to the book

A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes? Why does Jessica begin to question her life? What causes us to question the past as we age?

The life of Jessica Speight is told not in chapters but in vignettes related

by Jessica’s friend. These vignettes connect us not only to Jessica and Anna but also to all of Jessica and the narrator's friends. If your friends wrote about your life, what would they reveal? Would different friends focus on different aspects of your life?

Near the end of her life, Jessica returns to Africa, to the place where

“a lifetime ago” her maternal instinct was ignited by “

the shoebill and the lobster-claw children.

“Time has come full circle, and the river flows with time,”

the narrator tells us (270). Willa Cather expresses a similar message in My Antonia:

For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, theincommunicable past

” (238). How are these quotations similar? Different? What experience in Jessica’s

past triggers her revelation about the present?

The author utilizes many allusions:

. . .

succumbed to his Ancient Mariner grasp” (89), “

. . . she is

La Belle Heaulmière” (141), and “

. . .

it’s the heart of

darkness

” (279). How do these and other allusions add depth to Jessica’s story

?

Jessica tells her friend about the final connection she makes in Africa and how it would have been moresignificant if it had occurred at a special place and time instead of by the pool at the Jacaranda. She comments,

. . . we cannot choose where our memories return to us or what may prompt them. We areat the mercy. We believe there is a thread, a story, but we are at the mercy” (288). What is this

connection? How do people find closure in their lives? How does Jessica find closure? Does Drabble suggest people need to find closure or does she provide Jessica closure for the narrative? Explain.

Why does Drabble not only begin and end with Africa but also focus on Africa’s history and culture

throughout the novel? How has Africa influenced Jessica?

Anna, the pure gold baby, provides direction for

Jessica’s life. Through Anna, Jessica discovers the

meaning of love, responsibility, and humanity. What does Jessica learn about each of these topics?

Why doesn’t

the narrator want to tell Jessica about her account of Jessica’s life? How do you think

Jessica would feel if she read the narrator’s

version?

What do you think of the author’s decision to present Jessica’s story in this manner?