The Performance Book club

A novel about three women at turning points in their lives, and the one night that changes everything.

Deliciously intimate and yet emotionally wide-ranging, The Performance by Claire Thomas is a novel that both explores the inner lives of women as it underscores the power of art and memory to transform us.

The Performance

Read An Excerpt

One

Margot is shuffling in a balletic first position along the strip of carpet between the legs of the already-seated people in the theater and the chair backs of the row in front. She is almost late, and only some of the seated legs are shifting sideways to enable her to pass.

Excuse me, Margot says to no one in particular. Excuse me.

She is holding her handbag in front of her, moving it carefully over the row of heads. She is determined not to bump anyone with her bag or her body as she watches her feet in her sandals on the carpet, step step stepping.

As she reaches the center of the row, she looks up to see a young man in the seat next to hers. He stands, nodding his head, all chivalrous and patient.

Thank you, she says, squeezing past him. That's very kind.

Margot sits down and drops her bag onto her lap.

The young man also sits. He presses his forearm on the red velvet armrest between them. His flesh spreads out along the length of the armrest, his fingers hanging down toward the floor.

Margot considers asserting her own claim with her own presumptuous arm, but she doesn't want to touch him. His skin is covered in tattoos and pale ginger hairs. He has goosebumps from the air conditioning. A parrot is inked onto his arm. Primary colors and a neat, sharp beak. Is he thinking of pirates, perhaps?

You're not usually here on a Friday evening, Margot says.

He frowns at her-an arrow between his eyes.

I'm a subscriber, she explains. You get to know the people around you. She didn't mean to sound territorial. He looks annoyed.

But he replies. A whole sentence. We're doing a bit of Beckett at uni.

Beckett, says Margot. I didn't know that's what we were seeing until I got here. Just grabbed my ticket and fled. I was worried about being late. The traffic is always absolutely dire in the heat, don't you find? People seem to drive very strangely in the heat. And that smoke haze. I thought my windows were dirty for much of the drive until I realized it was just the smoke haze.

I got the tram, the young man says. No air con. That was absolutely dire.

I see, says Margot, turning her face forward. She has an expensive, unobstructed view of the stage.

Discussion Questions

1. The three women in this novel – Margot, Ivy, and Summer – are all at different stages of their lives. What are the overlaps and differences in their stories? What challenges do each face?

2. The fires outside the theater have become a common occurrence in many parts of the world. How does climate change and disaster affect the characters? Affect the reading experience?

3. The novel shifts formats in the middle and introduces an interlude or intermission section, written as a play. How do you think the story benefits from this shift? What did you learn from this new perspective about the characters?

4. How do the women’s relationships to their significant others shape their past and their present?

5. The play on stage is Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days – how do the themes of the play reverberate through the novel and the characters’ experiences?

6. There are different depictions of motherhood in the novel: ambivalence, joy, regret, tragedy, love, hardship. What else do you see in the roles these women play as mothers?

7. When Margot thinks she “has always been afraid of the wrong things,” what do you think she means? How does this play out with the other characters?

8. There is a push and pull between past and present, between memory and the distractions of the theater. When was a time when your mind wandered, pondering something from the past?

9. Many of the characters “perform” for each other or think of instances when they are “performing” for others. How does the idea of performance come across in the novel, alongside the performance on the stage?

10. The fortunes of these three women change throughout their lives. What impact do their relative privileges (or lack of privilege) have on the people they become? How does it affect their relationships with their loved ones? Their careers?

The Performance Spotify Playlist

While working on The Performance, Claire Thomas created a Spotify playlist. Your book club can download and listen to the playlist here. Read more about why Claire included these songs below:

"Some of the selected music is mentioned in The Performance, including songs from OutKast, Ariana Grande, and Bruce Springsteen, the childhood ditty from the TV show, Play School (a public broadcasting institution in Australia), and Franz Lehar’s Merry Widow duet that closes Beckett’s Happy Days.

Some of the other songs, while not in the novel, were chosen for a particular character. Margot remembers dancing with her son as a baby; I decided Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ was her preferred song. (Then I included Amy Shark’s ‘Adore You’ because I loved dancing to that song with my own baby.) Margot mentions the women’s liberation movement of the early 1970s, and so I included Helen Reddy’s anthemic ‘I am Woman’. When Margot finds her husband’s music collection in his car, Springsteen is playing, but U2 would also have been in the glovebox; I think ‘Bad’ is their best song.

Summer remembers heading to a gig in a Melbourne beer garden with her girlfriend, April, and I decided they were going to see Ainslie Wills; her song, ‘Society’, reflects so many of Summer’s anxieties. Songs from The 1975 and Billie Eilish are also for Summer; they are both about the climate crisis and the burdens placed on her generation.

Summer recalls going to a Taylor Swift concert. I included the song ‘Ivy’ from Swift’s Folklore as it shares its name with my third character and also because Folklore was a big part of my lockdown life when I was in the final editing stages of The Performance. Motor Ace’s beautiful ‘Siamese’ is included for Ivy; I think she might have been a fan in the early 2000s, like I was.

Other songs capture a mood of the novel, lyrically or rhythmically, including Clare Bowditch’s ‘Woman’, Sampa the Great’s ‘Energy’ and, for the more buoyant moments, Lizzo’s ‘Good as Hell’. ‘These Days’ is a beloved Australian song that became even more popular during our Covid lockdown; I love this poignant version from Indigenous singer, Thelma Plum.

There are other songs I love and chose because their titles/lyrics play on some aspect of the novel: Sleater-Kinney’s ‘Dig Me Out’; Smashing Pumpkin’s ‘Landslide’; Death Cab for Cutie’s ‘Soul Meets Body’; the Stone Roses’ ‘She Bangs the Drums’.

The last few selections are some of the most personal. I included Billy Bragg’s ‘There is Power in the Union’ because I was involved with the National Tertiary Education Union in Australia during the writing of this novel. After years of compromised work conditions, my small activism gave me so much hope for change.

Mogwai and Sigur Ros are long-time music loves. Both bands have often helped me to get my head into writing mode and keep it there. Also, in an era where so many of us are craving live performance, I cherish the memory of a Mogwai concert I went to a few years ago. It was very loud, very beautiful, and left me stunned and bawling in the darkened theatre.

In 2018, I made a slightly random (and blessedly funded) trip to the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, Colorado. On the long flight from Melbourne, I watched Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. This time, I was left bawling in a darkened aircraft cabin. The Denver experience changed my writing life; after a decade of confusion and ambivalence, I came home and wrote The Performance. I played Nicholas Britell’s gorgeous soundtrack to Beale Street over and over throughout that time."

Claire Thomas
Photo: © Leah Jing McIntosh

Claire Thomas

Claire Thomas is an award-winning writer from Melbourne, Australia. She has a PhD from the University of Melbourne, where she has taught for many years.

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