World renowned painter Rodrigo seemingly has it all: a multi-million dollar loft in SoHo; a talent for creativity that seems never ending; a recurring invitation to the exclusive modern art exhibit Art Basel; and lovers by the dozen. But what his longtime admirers don’t see is Rodrigo’s deep frustration with the world around him: the wild and sinfully luxurious parties have lost their luster, those who worship him and those who work for him seemingly do so out of greed, and worst of all, his art has lost meaning.
As he begins to slip further and further into the rabbit hole of despair, so begins his descent into madness, culminating with a beautiful, pristine vision in the shape of the perfect woman: Carlotta. As the lines between reality and fantasy slowly begin to blur and fade, Rodrigo finds himself at a very difficult crossroads: will he choose to live in his imagined world with the woman of his dreams by his side, or make a swift return to sanity, success, and the life he was always supposed to live?
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About the Author
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Beautiful Dream of Life includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Domingo Zapata. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that this guide will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
World-renowned painter Rodrigo seemingly has it all: a multimillion-dollar loft in SoHo, a talent for creativity that seems never-ending, a recurring invitation to the exclusive modern-art exhibit Art Basel, and lovers by the dozen. But what his longtime admirers don’t see is Rodrigo’s deep frustration with the world around him: the wild and sinfully luxurious parties have lost their luster, those who worship him and those who work for him seemingly do so out of greed, and, worst of all, his art has lost its meaning.
As he begins to slip further and further into the rabbit hole of despair, so begins his descent into madness, culminating with a beautiful, pristine vision in the shape of the perfect woman: Carlotta. As the lines between reality and fantasy slowly begin to blur and fade, Rodrigo finds himself at a very difficult crossroads: Will he choose to live in his imagined world with the woman of his dreams by his side, or make a swift return to sanity, success, and the life he was always supposed to live?
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The narrator is named Rodrigo Concepción, a surname that literally means “conception” and is often used in reference to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. What do you make of this connection, and why might the author have chosen this name for his protagonist?
2. Early on, billionaire Tex flips through photos of mostly nude models on his laptop, followed immediately by photos of a Picasso painting he bought. What does this convey about how Tex—and Rodrigo—view women and art?
3. Throughout part one, there is a recurring theme of female beauty as something dangerous that must be tamed. Rodrigo cites this as an explanation for The Raven’s dominating behavior toward women—referred to as “commodities”—that he “corrals” (page 16), and it comes up again as Rodrigo watches Carlotta walk away for the first time: “I know to never follow beautiful creatures in the night. They can become very dangerous” (page 41). How does this theme play out in parts two and three?
4. Rodrigo strives for possession and dominance throughout the book, imposing his will upon the canvases as he deconstructs and degrades Carlotta in the paintings in an effort to capture her spirit (pages 46–47), and imposing his will upon the many women he seduced and conquered for revenge (page 172), to cite just two examples. He seems to believe that his interactions with Desideria and Ana Paola mark significant departures from this kind of behavior. Do they? Why or why not?
5. The only woman Rodrigo has ever truly loved is a figment of his own imagination. (Or is she?) Why do you think so?
6. What do you make of Rodrigo’s visit to Heriberto? Were you surprised when you discovered he had been paying for Heriberto’s treatment? Why or why not?
7. Why does Rodrigo feel that his speech about duende after the bullfight is so significant and unprecedented?
8. Why do you think Rodrigo is enamored with the poetry of Federico García Lorca, especially “Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías”? How does the life of this extraordinary matador compare to the life of our narrator?
9. Why do you think Carlotta is initially unsure when Rodrigo asks her to marry him?
10. As Dr. Wincott shows Rodrigo his PET scans, his immediate reaction is to marvel at how beautiful they are and ask for copies to incorporate into his art. In what ways is this reaction an example of Rodrigo’s understanding of the world?
11. Dr. Wincott admits that Rodrigo’s neuropsychological deviations can be “an enhancement to creative, imaginative thought as it embraces the fantastical.” Rodrigo asks, “And so do I have an enhanced mind? Or a problem?” (page 268). Indeed, which do you believe it is?
12. How do you feel about Rodrigo’s definition of true soulmates?: “. . . a real soul that matches yours, that you could be with forever? That you could find and re-find, perhaps every earthly life cycle?” (page 278). Do you interpret this as a phenomenon akin to reincarnation, or something else entirely?
13. What is the difference between Rodrigo’s initial flight from New York and his final “escape”? How has he changed, if at all?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Explore author Domingo Zapata’s art by visiting his online gallery (http://www.dzapata.com/artwork/work). Are these the type of works you imagined Rodrigo creating in the book? Discuss how Domingo’s writing style compares to his painting style.
2. At the end of part one, as Rodrigo is losing his grasp on his alternative worlds, his bag of pills (and later the napkin with the lipstick butterfly) serve as touch points that help him discern which world he is in—but are they really? Before your book club, watch the film Inception and discuss the parallels, particularly between Rodrigo’s totems and those used in the film.
3. Before your book club discussion, read Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, as Rodrigo does during his recovery. What do you make of Freud’s theory of the unconscious, and why do you think it was dominant in the field of dream interpretation for so many years?
4. On the first page of the prologue and all through the book, the author offers insight into the creative process and one of its most powerful tools: dreams. Throughout history some creative people have used dreams as the basis for their work, among them Albert Einstein (a dream led to his theory of relativity), Niels Bohr (whose dream revealed the structure of the atom), mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, and the director Christopher Nolan (Inception). Dreams have also served as the inspiration for many writers and for musicians such as the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Has a dream ever inspired you to do something, or to change something you planned to do?
5. Watch Domingo Zapata’s TEDx talk, “The Healing Powers of Art” (http://bit.ly/1RsgkRA). How does his message of art as therapy influence your understanding of the novel?
A Conversation with Domingo Zapata
What made you decide to write a novel? How did this story begin revealing itself to you?
I have had this story in my head since college, when I read Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s Life Is a Dream, and I always thought that there was room to believe—or why not believe—that our real life is a dream about life. The story started there and evolved into experiences and anecdotes and fantasies of what can be or what could have been. And then of course there is the romanticism of true love and the question of soulmates and whether they exist or not.
How does the experience of writing a novel compare to the experience of painting? In what ways was your creative process the same, and in what ways was it different? Did anything surprise you about the experience of creating using only the written word?
Painting and writing are very different experiences. I think that when you are painting you figure out a theme and a composition and then you can be more spontaneous. In writing, you have to consider all the options and weigh them, and then you have to organize them, and then you can express them. Painting is about expressing a feeling, and writing is telling a story that expresses a feeling. In the beginning, writing was a big challenge, and then I got used to it; now I can take the experience of thinking as a writer and use it while I paint—I can use it to create something different, and the new work evolves from the work I did before.
Rodrigo is consistently interested in “juxtaposing the classic with the nouveau” (page 8), as he puts it, and is enamored with Florence, a town considered “dead to modern art” (page 36). How do you explore the interaction between the classical and the contemporary in your art and in this book?
I like moving from classical thinking to classical art and bringing it into the contemporary through the use of techniques such as graffiti and writing messages on the painting. Even in a city like Florence that has so much classical art, in the outskirts of the city you will find young artists and the modern way they express themselves. It depends on where you’re looking. I love to explore in my work a classical piece and bring it into the contemporary, like the Mona Lisa, or works by Picasso.
Did you know how the story would end from the beginning or did Rodrigo take you along for the ride just as he does the reader? Is the ending clear to you or do you interpret it differently each time you reread it?
I knew how the story would end from the beginning. It’s a story I had in my head and my heart for some years, along with the way I knew it would end, and it’s that way every time I read it. But what’s beautiful about this book is that you can have your own opinion and make your own conclusion.
What writers and/or artists did you turn to for inspiration during the writing process?
Writers: obviously, Calderón de la Barca (Life Is a Dream) and Federico García Lorca (“Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías”).
Artists: Francisco de Goya, Francis Bacon, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
What is your favorite scene in the novel?
When Rodrigo dreams he is the Eagle, home again in Mallorca, soaring over the Cala de Deià and looking down at Carlotta and her friend on the boat.
In your TEDx Talk, you discuss the power of art as a means of therapy, both for viewer and for creator. How does that idea translate to your protagonist, Rodrigo? Is the creation of his Universe series a form of therapy for him, a descent into madness, or both?
Rodrigo starts to realize in his sleeping work what is good in waking life. He has been contaminated by the world and has forgotten how human he is, and that when you are successful you have to be humble and remember who you were at the start, and not become something else. Sometimes madness can be the best therapy.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading The Beautiful Dream of Life?
Hope—and to believe that everything is possible.
What are you currently working on?
A show in Paris in September 2017, and I am looking forward to making the book into a movie.