When Stephanie Saldaña arrives in Damascus, she’s twenty-seven years old, brokenhearted, and running from a haunted family history that she has crossed the world to escape. But in an ancient Christian monastery carved into the desert cliffs, she will be forced to confront the life she left behind. Soon she will meet a series of improbable teachers: a female sheikh, an elderly neighbor, a wounded refugee, and Frédéric, a young French novice monk who becomes her best friend. What follows is one woman’s tender story of falling in love: with God, with her own life, and with a man she knows she can never have. Wise, funny, and heartbreaking, The Bread of Angels celebrates the surprising places where we can find a home, and the possibility of true love.
Reading Group Guide
1. In the beginning of the book, Stephanie is faced with a difficult decision: pursue a Fulbright scholarship in Damascus—an utterly foreign place—or stay in Cambridge, where she is comfortable with a man she loves, but who doesn’t love her in the same way. Have you ever been confronted with a dilemma like hers? How have you resolved or coped with it? Looking back on it, would you have done anything differently?
2. When Stephanie arrives in Syria, she is faced with many intimidating challenges, such as learning Arabic through the “vocabulary of war” and navigating a culture that often clashes with her own experiences. How well do you think she handles these obstacles? If you were in her place, how would you have reacted? Could she have done things differently?
3. The narrative paints a fascinating portrait of Damascus, a city of paradoxes, where members of opposing faiths, ideologies, and cultures live side-by-side peacefully—and frequently under the threat of war. What do you think it would be like to live in a society like that? How do you think you would approach the demands and daily interactions of your life if you lived in a place like Damascus
4. A major theme in the book is the individual quest to find God. This search for faith can be carried out in many ways. What is your opinion of how Stephanie pursued this? Reflecting on your own situation, have you experienced a similar search for meaning or significance in something in your life? How have you pursued that?
5. Multiple characters reveal that they draw on aspects of different cultures, traditions, and religions to form their own beliefs and decisions. What factors, if any, do you think have influenced your outlook, actions and beliefs?
6. Out of the many people Stephanie meets on the streets of Damascus and in the monastery, who is your favorite and why? What qualities or characteristics do you like and/or dislike about this character? What do you think they exemplify about Stephanie’s struggle and life in the Middle East?
7. Stephanie refers to her lessons on the Quran as “lessons in humility.” What about studying the Quran is so difficult for her? What does she learn about herself and her own faith through this experience? Have you ever had a similar experience in which you understood some new aspect of yourself only by confronting someone or something very different?
8. In the monastery, the mosque, and in Damascus, Stephanie meets some incredible women. How did they influence and challenge her? What surprised you most about their lives?
9. While Stephanie is struggling in the aftermath of the Spiritual Exercises, Frédéric tells her: “You don’t believe in resurrection.” What do you think he means? Does Stephanie succeed in finding resurrection by the end of her journey?
10. At one point in her journey, Stephanie prays that she might learn how to be a “novice in love.” What did you think of that request? By the end of her journey, who and what are some of the things she has learned how to love that she couldn’t before?
11. The ending of The Bread of Angels is open, leaving the reader to imagine what happens next. What do you think happens?
About the Author
Stephanie Saldaña grew up in Texas and received a B. A. from Middlebury College and a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School. She was a Watson and Fulbright scholar and has won several awards for her poetry. She lives in Jerusalem and teaches at the Honors College for Liberal Arts and Sciences, a partnership of Bard College and Al-Quds University.
"Beautiful. . . . A lovely book, filled with human longing and redemption and dazzling discoveries about faith in its many forms." --The Oregonian
"[A] poignant memoir about hitting rock bottom in love and faith. . . . Inspired and powerful. . . . This is a fresh, courageous book that gives new meaning to the word memoir." --Dallas Morning News
"A Middle Eastern Eat, Pray, Love." --The Washington Post Book World
"Tragic, hopeful, bittersweet, tender and insightful." --Austin American-Statesman
"Beautifully written. . . . The Bread of Angels is simultaneously a window into an alien culture, a spiritual journey, and a love story." --The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, VA)
"Brace yourself for an intense inner and outer journey. The Bread of Angels is a many-layered personal story, ricocheting from Damascus to Texas to the desert fathers to scruffy Cambridge. A passionate young scholar confronts war, love, the mysteries of language, and God. Stephanie Salda a is up to the task. A brilliant debut." --Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun
"A fascinating, back-alley travelogue of contemporary Damascus, as well as journey to the core of the Quran. Most of all, [The Bread of Angels] is an inspiring document of battle-tested faith." --San Antonio Express-News
"What sets Salda a's book apart from so many others is the very convincing way in which she writes about prayer--and the difficulty of praying." --Newsweek
"A remarkable, wise, and lovely book from a truly gifted new writer, The Bread of Angels brims with originality and insight. There is poetry here--the language and the depth of attention recall the young Annie Dillard. But this is, above all, a love story, and a compelling one. Not many people can write transcendent, mystical prose and also create a page-turner that keeps you up nights. Stephanie Salda a's achievement is extraordinary." --Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March
"Salda a vividly evokes life in [Damascus], where Arab and Armenian Christians have lived for centuries. . . . Her perceptive comments on life in Syria, her account of teaching in a Muslim school and her friendship with a female Islamic scholar who taught her about the Koran and the Muslim Jesus further enrich an already superior work. . . . Luminously rendered." --Richmond Times-Dispatch
"In the tradition of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, Stephanie Salda a's The Bread of Angels is a stunning memoir that is both a contemporary spiritual quest and a sweet, surprising love story." --Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
"The Bread of Angels is an elegant and brave memoir about the spiritual journey that transformed Stephanie Saldana's life. The unlikely setting . . . infuses her story with delightful characters and anecdotes, and powerful historical and religious associations. . . . Immensely readable and moving." --Haaretz
"Stephanie Salda a has created something of beauty out of her transformation from a life of chaos and her search for peace. [The Bread of Angels is] an elegant, dazzling memoir of a life lost and found in the ancient city of Damascus." --Shelf Awareness
"A fragrant, elegantly observed journey that captures the dilapidated glory of Damascus and the resilient wit of its people. Salda a's tale of spiritual dislocation and self-discovery is remarkable for its poignancy and keen intelligence." --Azadeh Moaveni, author of Lipstick Jihad and Honeymoon in Tehran
"Many readers will value the book for its cultural importance, for the sharp observations Salda a makes about Americans in the Middle East, based on her knowledge of the region and her ability to demolish certain stereotypes about Christian-Islamic relations. . . . This is the type of memoir, recounting a journey to the depths of the soul, that makes the personal universal." --America magazine
"The Bread of Angels is dazzling, delicious, wise, brilliantly funny, endearing in every way. It is a love letter to the Middle East and to one's own entire life, replete with doubt and fear, faith and deep connection. A masterpiece." --Naomi Shihab Nye, author of 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East