Reading Group Center

The Body in Question

By Jill Ciment

About This Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading/viewing list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of The Body in Question, Jill Ciment’s masterful novel about an affair between two sequestered jurors on a Florida murder trial.
About This Book
From the author of Heroic Measures (“Smart and funny and completely surprising . . . I loved every page” —Ann Patchett), Act of God (“A feat of literary magic”—Booklist) and, with Amy Hempel, The Hand That Feeds You (“An unnerving, elegant page-turner” —Vanity Fair), a spare, masterful novel.

The place: central Florida. The situation: a sensational murder trial, set in a courthouse more Soviet than Le Corbusier; a rich, white teenage girl—a twin—on trial for murdering her toddler brother.

Two of the jurors: Hannah, a married fifty-two-year-old former Rolling Stone and Interview Magazine photographer of rock stars and socialites (she began to photograph animals when she realized she saw people “as a species”), and Graham, a forty-one-year-old anatomy professor. Both are sequestered (she, juror C-2; he, F-17) along with the other jurors at the Econo Lodge off I-75. As the shocking and numbing details of the crime are revealed during a string of days and courtroom hours, and the nights play out in a series of court-financed meals at Outback Steak House (the state isn’t paying for their drinks) and Red Lobster, Hannah and Graham fall into a furtive affair, keeping their oath as jurors never to discuss the trial. During deliberations the lovers learn that they are on opposing sides of the case. Suddenly they look at one another through an altogether different lens, as things become more complicated . . . 

After the verdict, Hannah returns home to her much older husband, but the case ignites once again and Hannah’s “one last dalliance before she is too old” takes on profoundly personal and moral consequences as The Body in Question moves to its affecting, powerful, and surprising conclusion.
Question & Answer

1. What is the significance of the title? Whose body is the body in question? The baby’s? The defendant’s? Hannah’s or Graham’s, or both bodies? Hannah’s aging husband’s? The body of evidence during the trial?

2. Describe the central Florida setting of the novel. How does the sweltering, claustrophobic Florida weather and the Econo Lodge where the jurors are sequestered mirror the case itself, and also Hannah’s and Graham’s affair?

3. Hannah is somewhat relieved to be chosen for the jury in order to escape her aging husband for a little while. Contrast this with his reaction to “being alone for twenty-one days at eighty-six, cocooned in [his] diminishing senses—this is a different level of loneliness than she has ever experienced” (p. 16). In what ways does this passage capture their 30-year age difference?

4. Discuss how The Body in Question explores themes of aging, sex and desire, and death—separately and in concert with each other.

5. Hannah contemplates her role as juror, “This judgement is as close as mortals get to God. She can sense that the other jurors are humbled as well” (p.21). Have you ever served on a jury? How did deciding someone’s fate feel to you? What is the importance of being on a jury?

6. Discuss why Hannah “would like one last dalliance before she gets too old” (p. 33). Does this affect your opinion of her? Does this make you more sympathetic to her, or not?

7. Hannah contemplates her role as juror, “This judgement is as close as mortals get to God. She can sense that the other jurors are humbled as well” (p.21). Have you ever served on a jury? How did deciding someone’s fate feel to you? What is the importance of being on a jury?

8. Describe both Hannah’s husband and Graham. One difference (besides their ages—86 and 42, respectively) is captured on page 50, “Her husband would never have asked that tiresome question, for which there never is an answer.” How else are they different? Are they similar at all?

9. “Art is a conversation.” (p. 61). Describe Hannah’s art and her feelings on being an artist. Discuss the importance of creativity and art in Hannah’s life. 

10. “At fifty-two, she has a different kind of sexual power than she had at twenty-four. She doesn’t like this new kind of power one bit, but she also can’t get enough of it” (p. 77). How is Hannah’s sexual power different? In what ways does it change her.

11. How do the gruesome details of the case contrast with the details of the jurors’ evenings at the lodge?

12. “All the bones and bumps couple together in practiced, comforting compression, like an old mattress whose imprint you naturally fill” (p. 93). How does this describe what Hannah and her husband’s relationship has become? Discuss their marriage. Throughout The Body in Question, why is he always called “her husband,” and has no given name?

13. Hannah and Graham are called “C-2” and “F-17” in part one? Why are their names withheld until part two? Does knowing their names affect your feelings about them?

14. As the jurors deliberate the case, Hannah and Graham find themselves on opposing sides. She questions if she really likes or even knows him. “He voted guilty. How did she get him so wrong? Are people that unknowable? Who did she believe those beautiful feet belonged to?” (p. 109) How does this complicate things for the two of them? 

15. Why does Hannah change her mind about her verdict, from not guilty to guilty?

16. Hannah’s husband finds out about the affair in tandem with finding out he is dying. How is dying another betrayal? How does this affect Hannah’s guilt and her husband’s forgiveness? 

17. How do you feel about assisted suicide? “This is the bravest, kindest act she has ever done” (p. 159). Do you agree? Would you do this for a dying loved one?

18. Describe what makes Jill Ciment’s storytelling and writing style so unique. How does she tell this story? How does the plot unfold?

19. How do Hannah’ and Graham’s professions affect how they view the world and interact with others? Are Hannah, as a photographer of bodies, and Graham, a physician and anatomy professor, more sensitive to each other and to the case than the other jurors?

20. The Wall Street Journal calls the novel, “a smart, compact, refreshingly unsentimental exploration of the persistence of desire amid the fact of death.” Discuss this quote and whether you agree with it or not.

About This Author
JILL CEMENT has received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, two New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and a Guggenheim fellowship, among many other awards. Born in Montreal, she lives in Gainesville, Florida, and Brooklyn, New York.
Suggested Reading
Jill Ciment, Heroic Measures
Mary Gaitskill, Veronica
Lauren Groff, Florida
Amy Hempel, Sing to It
Ann Patchett, Bel Canto