Discussion questions

  1. From the very beginning of the story, we learn that Ada Vaughan is ambitious and driven: “Ada would go far, she knew, be a somebody” What are the upsides, and downsides, to Ada’s ambition? How does her ambition affect the decisions she makes, at various junctures in the story? Does Ada ever lose her ambition?
  2. When Stanislaus appears, near the beginning of the story, Ada falls for him almost instantly. Why do you think she is so susceptible to his charm? What are some of the possibilities that Stanislaus represents, to Ada? Is she changed by him, and if so, how?
  3. Ada describes her employer, Mrs. Buckley, as someone who is “crafted through artifice.” Throughout the story, there are many instances of people attempting to look like something they are not; people changing their appearances. What are some of these instances, both good and bad? How does dressmaking, and clothing in general, relate to this theme?
  4. We learn that Ada is good at improvising. When she meets Stanislaus, she is “out of her depth. But she’d learn to swim, she’d pick it up fast.” Ada’s skill at improvising is a theme that runs through the book. Do you think this knack is ultimately a good thing, something that keeps Ada alive? Or is it more harmful than helpful?
  5. Why do you think Ada ignores the warnings of war, when Stanislaus invites her to Paris? How might her life have turned out differently, if she hadn’t gone?
  6. As a dressmaker, Ada is always attentive to the way people dress, the clothing they wear. Is clothing an important signifier, a way of learning something about the person who wears it? What are some of these noteworthy outfits in the story? What are some of the moments when Ada discerns something important from the way someone is dressed? What role does Eva Braun, and her vanity, play in this story?
  7. Ada calls the teddy bear she finds at the Belgian border her good luck charm; she says it has “kept her alive so far.” Later in the book, back in London, Ada also calls her blue dress lucky. What is the role of luck and chance in this book? What events does Ada think of as “lucky” in the moment, that might appear different in hindsight?
  8. During Ada’s trial, near the end of the book, the question of Ada’s sanity during wartime starts to come into question. How much of Ada’s decision-making in wartime seemed like a rational choice to stay alive? Did any of her choices seem irrational, in the moment? If you had been in the same situation as Ada, during the war, what would you have done the same, or differently?
  9. How does hope keep Ada going, throughout the story? What are some of the ways that she remains hopeful, even in the darkest times?
  10. Back in London, Ada finds that most people don’t want to talk about the messy or complicated parts of the war. There is a notion of a so-called “good war”—what do you think this means? Why would Ada’s war not be considered a “good war”?
  11. After the war, Ada becomes, in effect, a prostitute, operating beyond acceptable social and sexual mores. What part does this play in her downfall? How do we see double standards—one law for women, one for men—at play in the way she is treated? Why were her ‘clients’ so keen to talk to her, but not to defend her?
  12. At the end of the story, Ada’s version of events clashes with the prosecutor’s version. She observes how the facts can be twisted, but wonders where is the in-between: “the truth, that connected one fact to another.” What are some instances where you’ve seen this happen in real life, where two narratives are spun from the same set of facts? The jury ultimately accepted the prosecutor’s narrative, not Ada’s. Why do you think some narratives are more acceptable than others?
  13. There are many novels and stories now set in World War I and World War II. Why do you think stories of war endure? Is there something about a war that reveals the strengths and frailties of human beings?  How have stories of war—the way we write, talk, and think about them—changed over time?