Reading Guide: Under the Spell

Reading Guide for Under the Spell: A Novel by Benjamin Hedin

1. Hedin makes two distinct comments on the way love manifests online: the rush of excitement when seeing the initials of the beloved flash up in an email inbox (as when Dale Tobin is mistaken for “Designer Tuxedo,” etc.), and the leaden concept of “security questions” as a shorthand for intimate knowledge of another. How does the author offer a commentary on the dynamics of online relationships throughout?

2. How would you characterize the different forms of grief Sandra experiences throughout the novel? And how does Hedin reveal the effects of Sandra’s grief through the development of the narrative?

3. After losing Dale, Sandra is still able to conjure him. This takes numerous forms, including as an involuntary by-product of her grief (in her “magical thinking”), as a conscious way of maintaining a kind of conversation with him, or by impersonating him through correspondence with Ryan. What do these moments in the text, where Dale “returns” to Sandra in some way, tell us about the nature of love, and losing a loved one?

4. How do some of the interactions Sandra has with others in the novel reflect society’s often uneasy relationship with grief? 

5. How does Sandra herself reflect on memory, grief, and being the one “left behind”?

6. One focus of the novel is on the things we hide from those we love. We see this mostly clearly in Sandra’s discovery of Dale’s relationship with Ryan. But there are also numerous other reflections on those thoughts or feelings we hide. For instance, after considering that Tina was a stand-in for what she wanted with Dale, Sandra rationalizes away the idea that certain thoughts would become “forgotten utterance[s] . . . the legion of things we say to ourselves and never to other people.” (79) Did you find other similar examples—and how might the relationships described in the novel be different if such utterances were shared with others?

7. On page 83, Sandra describes the process of drafting a message to Ryan. Through this passage, and what follows, how does Hedin prime us to read the exchange, looking for the moments in which the voice of “Dale” reflects more clearly Sandra’s own thoughts, and the hints she drops to guide Ryan toward an admission of her “true” relationship with Dale?

8. How does the nature of Sandra and Ryan’s relationship change over time? How does your impression of each character change as the plot unfolded?

9. Between pages 100-101, Hedin offers us a brief history of an utterance by Sandra: “Don’t you think want is a luxury?” What are your thoughts on this passage, in which the author reflects on the complex, shifting relationship between love, personal dreams or ambitions, and work in a relationship?

10. The book, Under the Spell, that lends its title to this work, is mentioned three times throughout the novel. What do you think is the cumulative impact on Sandra’s life, having fallen “under the spell” after Dale’s death, and therefore finding Ryan, Lee, Tina, and Carl? How has she changed, and what change has she brought to the lives of others?

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