Discussion Guide: Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm

1. Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm is set in 2013. How does the novel’s chronological setting impact its plotlines and themes? Do you think the story would be different if it were set at another time?

2. When we first meet Circus Palmer, he is anxious about the approach of his upcoming fortieth birthday. As the novel continues, Circus is forced to confront his fears about aging and what it means to not have accomplished the goals he expected to achieve by this milestone year. Have you ever felt pressure to reach a goal by a certain age? Share your own experience of confronting those expectations

3. Describe Koko. How do childhood innocence and the mature realities of emerging adulthood contrast themselves in her story? How does her relationship with her father evolve over the course of the story?

4. Laura Warrell crafted this novel as a series of episodes told through an ensemble of women who have known and loved Circus. Whose story were you most curious about?

5. Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm provides insights into the lives of women as they juggle their loves, careers, and artistic ambitions. What role does gender play in the stories of the novel’s female creatives? Are there any expectations or limits placed on them as women in their fields? How do their experiences compare to Circus’s?

6. Koko is the biracial daughter of Circus and Pia. How does her racial identity differ from the women and girls she knows? Who in her life shapes her ideas about race and its significance? How does Koko navigate her identity over the course of the novel?

7. In Boston, Circus reunites with his first love, Carmen, whom he hasn’t seen since college. How does this reunion play out for Circus? Discuss your own experience of reuniting with someone from your past.

8. Sex is used differently by the characters in the book—for building self-esteem, feeling companionship, seeking escape, or expressing violence. Does the novel portray sexual or romantic relationships positively or negatively? How so?

9. How did you react to Circus’s altercation with Josephine and its aftermath?

10. A recurring element of Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm is the metaphor of women being like music, from Circus naming songs after his lovers to his friend telling him to “control that horn like a woman you don’t trust” (page 200). How are ideas of sex and love intertwined with performance and musical creativity throughout the novel? Do Circus’s relationships with the women in his life shift as his relationship with music transforms?

11. Do you think it’s true that Koko doesn’t like her mother, as Pia asserts on page 243? How are other relationships between mothers and daughters depicted within the novel? How is Koko’s relationship with Pia different from her relationship with Circus?

12. A common thread among the novel’s characters is the experience of journeying, whether it be through the physical spaces of Boston, Miami, New York, and Pennsylvania or the emotional cycles of heartbreak, grief, redemption, and new beginnings. What are some of the journeys that each character embarks on? Do any of them get where they are going? Which journey moved or involved you the most?

13. Why do you think Pia felt a sense of belonging in the “nothing” town she found herself in? Contrast her landing place in the novel with where Circus ends up?

14. Music is used throughout the story as a bridge connecting lovers, family members, and even strangers to one another and to the joys of their pasts. Are there any songs in your life that evoke happy memories or have fostered specific connections with other people?

15. In the novel’s closing scene, what truths were distilled for Koko as she looks ahead to her future?