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Reading Group Guide for These Violent Delights
and Our Violent Ends
By Chloe Gong About the Books
Set in 1920s Shanghai, this atmospheric and intricate Romeo and Juliet–
inspired duology follows eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, who has returned from studying in America to claim her rightful place as heir to the Scarlet Gang, a local Chinese criminal network. Four years earlier, her first love, Roma Montagov, heir to the White Flowers, a Russian rival gang, committed a betrayal so deep that the ripples of vengeance still move across the city. What else could she expect from a blood feud motivated by loyalty and violence? Before she can enact her revenge, a monster ravages the city, spreading a contagion that causes murderous madness and that targets both the Scarlets and the White Flowers. On top of the pandemic, political turmoil threatens to rip the city apart and end gangster rule. As a foreign imperialist presence grows, so does the threat of civil war, spurred by both the Nationalist Party and the Communists stoking the embers of revolution among the working class, who are tired of warlord control. Juliette and Roma realize working together may be their only chance for salvation. Discussion Questions
1. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
, Juliet cannot freely marry, not only because of the blood feud between the Montagues and the Capulets, but also because of patriarchal society in medieval Italy. How does this compare to the experiences of the female characters in 1920s Shanghai? How about in contemporary society?
2. Throughout the series, Juliette feels herself split between two worlds: the East and the West. Her family treats her like an outsider, yet in the city she blends in unless she wears flapper dresses. She wonders, “Could she never be both? Was she doomed to choose one country or the other? Be an American or nothing?” Free write for five minutes about your identities and a time you didn’t fit in. What made you feel this way? Did the feeling come from lived experience, stereotypes, or something else? Share with the class, if you’d like.
3. “[Roma] ached with the knowledge that the softness of their youth was gone forever . . .” What is meant by this? When do you think people realize they are no longer children? Does everyone grow up at the same rate? Why or why not? What does “growing up” mean to you?
4. Think about how the madness spreads and what it causes its victims to do. Considering where the insects and monsters come from and who is releasing them into the city, do you think the sickness is a metaphor? If so, for what? Does the metaphor change in book two? Be prepared to back up your answer.
5. Throughout both books, love is akin to death. At many moments, Juliette makes statements like, “‘This is why we shall not love more than we need to. Death will come for everyone in the end,’” and “Perhaps they could be together at last if it was together in death. And what was love if all it did was kill?” Consider the characters that survived in the story. Were they lacking love? Why did they get to live? Are Juliette and Roma destined to die? How might they change their fate? Explain your answers.
6. Consider the main couples and their race, gender, and sexuality. What obstacles might they face (outside of a blood feud) to be together? Have you or anyone you know dated someone family or society did not approve of? What role should family and/or society play in the person you choose to be in a relationship with?
7. “This city holds itself upright by the power of information, and its messengers work frantically, whisper passing whisper until it reaches the ears of its rival darlings.” This quote acts as foreshadowing. What examples from the text describe instances of miscommunication? Imagine the internet and electronic devices did not exist. What scenarios would be disastrous if you could not communicate instantly? Share a time a text message was misunderstood or not delivered. What problem(s) arose from the situation?
8. Juliette considers the racism she experienced in America and Shanghai due to colonizers. “They believed themselves the rulers of the world—on stolen land in America, on stolen land in Shanghai. Everywhere they went—entitlement
. And Juliette was so tired
.” Do you think entitlement fuels racism, imperialism, and colonization? Explain your answer. Give examples of how these systems of oppression exist today.
9. Shanghai is described as “the Paris of the East, the New York of the West.” Using examples from the text, describe how white, foreign influences shaped Shanghai as compared to the other cities in China that the characters visit. How does Shanghai’s unique culture impact how its inhabitants view themselves? What about the Chinese characters who lived in the West, like Juliette, Kathleen, and Rosalind?
10. Kathleen notes that “Juliette didn’t know how lucky she was to have been born into her natural skin, into her white cheeks and porcelain-smooth wrists. There was so much luck to be had in the genetic lottery; one different code and it was a lifetime of forced adaptation.” Contrast the female characters’ experiences and examine the privileges of being cisgender, wealthy, having lighter skin, and speaking multiple languages. Use examples from the text, including women that are shown in only one scene. How do their identities influence how Juliette and the Lang sisters defy family duty and societal expectations? Are any justified in their actions? Explain your answer.
11. Though this story is a work of historical fiction, the “April 12 Purge” is a real event that occurred in Shanghai in 1927. Why do you think the author chose this time and setting to reimagine Romeo and Juliet
? How would you remix Romeo and Juliet
in contemporary times? What setting and political issues would you highlight? Share your answer.
12. The Nationalist Party leader instructs the Scarlets to kill all the Communists and to treat the White Flowers as such, risking annihilation of an entire group of people, including workers who have no affiliation, but could be caught at the wrong place and time. What is the impact of this action? Why do you think civilians, especially the working class, are so often casualties of war?
13. Compare strife and tragedy across social classes. Would a laborer working in a factory for sixteen hours a day have time to duel like Roma and Tyler? How would the story change if the main characters were poor?
14. “For thousands of years, the worst crime in China was a lack of filial piety. Having children with no xiàoshùn was a fate worse than death. It meant being forgotten in the afterlife, a wandering ghost doomed to starve when no offerings came in from irreverent descendants. . . . The West had corrupted them—and whose fault was that?” What is filial piety
? How is respect for parents and ancestors demonstrated in your culture? Have you ever had to confront your family with a different idea than the one they taught you? What challenges arose?
15. When Kathleen masquerades as a university student publishing a piece on the Communist Party’s secretary-general, she describes it as “‘A study of power . . . and the madness that comes with it. A study of the powerful, and those who are scared of him. . . . The uncovering of the madness.’” She could be talking about the secretary-general or any combination of characters and situations. Discuss as a group how power, madness, and fear is manifested in the story. Use examples from the text.
16. “The gangsters could still join forces with the tired factory workers and their boycotts. Together, if only the Scarlet Gang wanted to, they could overrun the foreigners . . .” Knowing this, how do you feel about the gangs’ choice to rule over the city? How do the Scarlets and White Flowers perpetuate and heighten issues of violence, poverty, sickness, imperialism, the opium crisis, and more? Why doesn’t either gang unite with the working class? Support your response with examples.
17. How does Juliette’s loyalty to “her city, her gang, her family” change across both books? What do you think is more important: loyalty or survival? Explain your answers.
18. “When the choice was between protecting those you loved and sparing the lives of strangers, who would ever think that to be a hard decision?” How would you answer Juliette’s question? At what cost comes destruction and violence in the name of love? If you were Juliette’s or Roma’s friend and they told you how they felt about each other, how would you react? Do you think what they have is love? Share with the class.
19. Juliette suggests that if she had paid close attention, she could have supported Rosalind and found “something that made her place worth it.” Considering the theme of star-crossed lovers, do you think that it was inevitable that Rosalind would also fall in love with a White Flower? How and why is Rosalind and Dimitri’s relationship different from Juliette and Roma’s? Why does Juliette think Rosalind’s future and actions could be changed, but not her own?
20. There have long been scholars and critics who read Shakespeare’s plays with a queer and trans lens, examining the bard’s use of gender-bending in his stories. While these characters’ identities may not have been accepted in the 1920s, what is the significance of including explicitly queer characters and a trans character in Gong’s adaptation? Explain your answer. Extension Activities
1. Divide the class into two sides (Scarlets and White Flowers), and debate whether revolution is possible without violence. Consider alternative methods to create social change. Use moments in history and current events as examples. In this scenario, pretend the two sides are willing to set aside the blood feud.
2. Juliette and Roma frequently refer to “the city” personified as if the place is what causes violence and not people’s actions. What do you think about this? Choose a chapter and rewrite it from the city’s perspective.
3. For those who have read or seen Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
, characters and specific scenes from Gong’s adaptation will seem familiar. Choose a character, whether they exist in the original play or not, and create a character map that shows their character development and personality. If they’re a character that appears in the play, consider the differences and similarities. What catalysts propel their story across both books? What are the points of no return? You can create your map as a time line, an aesthetic board or video, a series of tweets, diary entries, or something else. Be prepared to present your map to the class, including a rationale on why you chose to represent it the way you did.
4. In These Violent Delights
, Paul tells Juliette that some people are “‘too poor to deserve’” the vaccine. Then, in Our Violent Ends
, the Scarlets fight Juliette’s plan to make a free vaccine that’s accessible to all. While the Covid-19 vaccine was free to all in the US, it has not always been easily accessible. Research the barriers and the groups of people who are disproportionately affected by inaccessibility to health care. Why do these barriers exist? Get into groups and choose one of the following: 1. Create informational material (i.e., a short video, pamphlet, zine, blog post, etc.) to report your findings. 2. Imagine you are a system of government. Outline a plan for how to address the issues you learned about.
5. Choose an overlapping theme from Shakespeare’s play and Gong’s books. Write an essay that explores how Gong’s retelling supports the theme through character, plot, setting, and style.
6. The first scene in Our Violent Ends
involves Juliette, Kathleen, and Roma attending a silent movie screening. In groups, create a three-to-five-minute silent movie version of either book, including a movie poster. You can choose to include yourselves as actors, recruit friends and family, or find some other way to include “actors,” such as toys or illustrations. Find some examples on YouTube to get inspired. Guide written by Cynthia Medrano, Digital Services Librarian at Heartland Community College, and member of the 2022 Rise: A Feminist Book Project Committee. This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.