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Book Club Discussion Questions: How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

Updated: Mar 18, 2022

For those of you that haven't or couldn't attend book club lately, we'll be publishing the previous months' discussion questions here. I hope eventually to post discussion questions for all of the books we've covered since I took over a couple of years ago and beyond, all the way to the beginning over a decade and a half ago. It will take a while. Until then, we will be posting discussion questions on a weekly basis. Here are the questions from a 2019 title, How to Stop Time. We hope these questions spark discussions of your own.

 

How to Stop Time

by Matt Haig


Summary:

Tom Hazard has just moved back to London, his old home, to settle down and become a high school history teacher. And on his first day at school, he meets a captivating French teacher at his school who seems fascinated by him. But Tom has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he's been alive for centuries. Tom has lived history--performing with Shakespeare, exploring the high seas with Captain Cook, and sharing cocktails with Fitzgerald. Now, he just wants an ordinary life.


Unfortunately for Tom, the Albatross Society, the secretive group which protects people like Tom, has one rule: Never fall in love. As painful memories of his past and the erratic behavior of the Society's watchful leader threaten to derail his new life and romance, the one thing he can't have just happens to be the one thing that might save him. Tom will have to decide once and for all whether to remain stuck in the past, or finally begin living in the present.


How to Stop Time tells a love story across the ages—and for the ages—about a man lost in time, the woman who could save him, and the lifetimes it can take to learn how to live. It is a bighearted, wildly original novel about losing and finding yourself, the inevitability of change, and how with enough time to learn, we just might find happiness.

 

Discussion Questions

  1. How does Tom Hazard feel about his life as an Albatross? What does he see as the draw-backs of great longevity? Would you want the kind of lifespan the Albas have? Let's say you were an Alba, how would you want to live your life, especially given the no-falling-in-love rule and the secrecy rule?

  2. Follow-up to Question 1: Tom thinks that being an Alba isn't anything special: We weren't superheroes. We were just old … always living within the parameters of [our] personality. No expanse of time or space could change that. You could never escape yourself. (p.12) What does Tom mean? Why does he want to escape himself? Is it possible to escape ourselves?

  3. During his job interview with Daphne, Tom explains his view of history: "History isn't something you need to bring to life. History already is alive. We are history.… History is everywhere" (p. 17). What is history to you? Was it a favorite or despised subject for you in school? What about today?

  4. Follow-up to Question 3: Other than what he tells Daphne during his interview, how is Tom's view of history different from the way we "mayflies" see it? He has seen a lot of it roll by. Is he optimistic or pessimistic about history and humankind's role in its events? Consider George Santayana's famous warning: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" (p. 320).

  5. On his first trip to America, Tom considers the (at that time) modern ocean liner and thinks that humans measure progress as "the distance we placed between ourselves and nature (p. 83). It seems a rather cynical definition. Or maybe it's simply unsentimental. What do you think? How do you define progress.

  6. Tom attends a live performance of Tchaikovsky directing one of his orchestral pieces. What consolations does music offer Tom, not just symphonic music but all music? What are the things you turn to in your own life for consolation?

  7. Follow-up to Question 6: At the concert in Carnegie Hall, Hendrich points out Andrew Carnegie in the balcony. Despite all his wealth, with music halls and libraries carrying his name, Hendrich scoffs at Carnegie. He says to Tom, "Legacy. What a meaningless thing" (p. 98). What does Hendrich mean, and why does one's name after death count for nothing in his eyes? Do you agree? Is legacy merely a stab at achieving immortality? Does legacy have significance? Or is it ultimately meaningless?

  8. In one of his peregrinations through present-day London, Tom views young people in a gym on treadmills, plugged in to headphones, watching TV, or checking email. Places don't matter to people anymore. Places aren't the point. People are only ever half present where they are these days. They always have at least one foot in the great digital nowhere. (p. 109) What do you make of his observation? Is there truth to it? Before you answer, consider his observation in the context of Question 2, i.e., Tom's despair about being unable to escape himself.

  9. Why did Tom enjoy his life during the Jazz Age? In hindsight, how does he see the era as a prelude to fascism and World War II? He talks about the rise of "bully-boy leaders" and scapegoats and cults; then he adds, "It happened every now and then" (p. 205). Do you sense any parallels to our current age?

  10. Of the historical personages Tom has met, eras he has lived through, and events he has witnessed, who or what do you find most interesting or engaging or disturbing?

  11. Hendrich says he does only "what is necessary." He has saved Flora Brown, Reginald Fisher, and others. Tom continues to work for the Society because, despite its flaws, he believes that ultimately it's the good work that matters. Discounting the end of the novel, do you agree with Tom at this point: is it possible to overlook the evil and concentrate on the good, especially if it saves lives? In other words, does the good outweigh the bad?

  12. On the flight to Australia, Tom wonders if his love for Camilla is a different kind of love from the love he had for Rose. What do you think? Are there different ways to be "in love"? Isn't all "romantic" love fundamentally the same?

  13. Omai tells Tom about his seven years with Hoku, saying those years "contained more than anything else." Then he goes on to talk about time: That's the thing with time isn't it? It's not all the same. Some days—some years—some decades—are empty. There is nothing to them. It's just flat water. Then you come across a year, or even a day, or an afternoon. And it is everything. It is the whole thing. (p. 296) Have you ever had the sense that the duration of time varies—that some days go faster and others more slowly, or that some periods of time have greater import or a stronger claim on your memory than others?

  14. Omai also talks about love: You cannot simply fall in love and and not think there is something bigger ruling us. Something not quite us … that lives inside of us … ready to help or fuck us over. (p. 297) What does Omai mean?

  15. Why does Omai reject the Albatross Society and its protection?

  16. Once back from Australia, Tom types an email to the biotech company investigating cellular damage in illnesses and ageing. He gives his age and writes that he might be able to help wth research. He saves it as a draft, but we never know whether he sends it. Should he?

  17. What is your prediction for Tom and Camilla? Has it struck you, by the way, that the two women loved by Tom are named for flowers.

  18. What is the significance of the title, "How to Stop Time"? Some of the characters talk about stopping time, though for different reasons: mayflies because it goes by too quickly, Tom because he's had too much of it. Nonetheless, the title is "how" to stop it. What does Tom realize by the novel's end?

  19. Follow-up to Question 18: In one of the most beautiful passages of the book, on page 314, Tom considers how he wishes to live his life: without fear of hurt or loneliness, without looking forever toward the future but living in the here and now. Read the passage aloud in your book group, and consider how each of you wishes to live your own life. Are you in accordance with Tom's wishes? Would you add anything to his list … or leave anything out?

  20. Matt Haig has said that this book was partly inspired by his own experiences of mental illness. In what way has this shaped the novel?

  21. What are the consequences for Tom of having a condition that is invisible to the outside world?

  22. The idea behind the book is fantastical, but how plausible did you find the storyline? Did you think the Albatross society for the anagerics made the plot more credible?

  23. Throughout the novel, Tom’s focus is on finding his daughter. And when they finally meet, she’s not what he expected. What did you think of their meeting and interaction? Why do you think she turned out the way she did?

  24. The story switches from the past to the present with each chapter. Did you enjoy the flow or were you confused at any point?

  25. Some of the themes include embracing change, letting go of one’s past and learning how to live a fulfilled life. What other themes did you pick up on?

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