Skip to Main Content

A teen girl’s summer with her mother turns sinister in this gripping thriller about the insidious dangers of unwanted attention, from Printz Honor medal–winning and National Book Award finalist author Deb Caletti—perfect for fans of Courtney Summers’s Sadie.

Sydney Reilly has a bad feeling about going home to San Francisco before she even gets on the plane. How could she not? Her mother is Lila Shore—the Lila Shore—a film star who prizes her beauty and male attention above all else…certainly above her daughter.

But Sydney’s worries multiply when she discovers that Lila is involved with the dangerous Jake, an art dealer with shady connections. Jake loves all beautiful objects, and Syndey can feel his eyes on her whenever he’s around. And he’s not the only one. Sydney is starting to attract attention—good and bad—wherever she goes: from sweet, handsome Nicco Ricci, from the unsettling construction worker next door, and even from Lila. Behaviors that once seemed like misunderstandings begin to feel like threats as the summer grows longer and hotter.

It’s unnerving, how beauty is complicated, and objects have histories, and you can be looked at without ever being seen. But real danger, crimes of passion, the kind of stuff where someone gets killed—it only mostly happens in the movies, Sydney is sure. Until the night something life-changing happens on the stairs that lead to the beach. A thrilling night that goes suddenly very wrong. When loyalties are called into question. And when Sydney learns a terrible truth: beautiful objects can break.

A Reading Group Guide to

Girl, Unframed

By Deb Caletti

About the Book

Sydney is on the verge. Of what, she’s not exactly sure, but she can tell that she’s right on the edge of something. Balancing between girl and woman, daughter and girlfriend, good and not-so-good. If she had her way, she would stay at school for summer break, living near her friends, her grandmother, and everything she knows. She would stay and wait for the big, exciting change that she can sense is coming. Instead, she has to go to San Francisco to spend time with her movie star mother. Sydney senses big changes in California, too, changes that are as dark and foreboding as anything she can imagine. Will she make it through the summer unscathed, or will she go hurtling over the edge and into some of the darkest days of her life?

Discussion Questions

1. The author dedicates the book to her parents, and “to theirs, and theirs, and theirs.” After reading the book, why do you think she chose to include this dedication, stretching back over generations of parents? Do you think Sydney would ever dedicate a book to her parents?

2. Where does Sydney’s strong feeling of dread over her summer plans come from? How does it compare to her feeling that “IT” is coming? Why does she decide to ignore the dread? Does the dread do a good job of alerting Sydney to actual danger?

3. How does Sydney’s perception of her own body change over the course of the story? In what ways do the words and actions of the other characters affect how she views herself? How does this change in perspective make her feel? What advice might you have given to Sydney if she was your friend?

4. What kind of mother is Lila? Give examples from the book to support your observations. Is she the mother that Sydney needed as a child? Is she a good mother to Sydney now? Why is Sydney’s first memory of Lila significant?

5. As Sydney prepares for her trip to San Francisco, she says, “Mer was my best friend. She knew me. She knew the me I was then.” She also mentions her friends’ tendencies to forget about her famous mother, noting, “I loved being the me I really was. Not the me I was in relation to someone else.” How many versions of Sydney do you see in these pages? How does she change from the girl that Meredith knew? Which version do you think is her true self? Explain your answers using evidence from the book.

6. Early on in the story, Sydney says, “Being looked at and being seen are two entirely different things. And when you are looked at but not seen, you are an object. A napkin. A magazine. A knife.” Who or what is looked at but not seen in this story? Why do you think that is? Do you think Lila looks at or sees Sydney? Explain your answers.

7. Knowing what you do about how the summer ends, what is the significance of the knife in the above quote?

8. What do you think Lila sees in men she dates? How does Lila act in these relationships? What does she try to get from them? Do you think Sydney looks for any of the same characteristics in men? Do you think there are unconscious behaviors or ideas that you take from your parents or other adults in your lives?

9. Partway through the summer, Sydney realizes that she no longer likes books by R. W. Wright. What is it about these books that rubs her the wrong way? Does she find parallels to Wright’s attitudes toward women in her own life? Explain your answers using examples from the novel.

10. Why is it easier, especially at first, for Nicco and Sydney to communicate through pictures instead of words? How might this relate to the workings of the Camera Obscura and the way Sydney sees the world? Do you think Nicco and Sydney look at or see each other?

11. What does Sydney mean when she says, “Everything that summer sat at the edge of a cliff. The Cliff House, the labyrinth, the Camera Obscura, our house. Lila. The summer itself. Me.”? Which of these things are endangered by their proximity to the cliff’s edge? How might a person sit at the edge of a cliff?

12. Why does seeing the flasher affect Sydney so much more negatively than seeing the nude sunbathers on Baker Beach? Do you think she is surprised by her reaction? Is there anyone else who robs Sydney of her power and agency like the flasher does? How do these experiences impact her actions?

13. Discuss the phrase ladies’ man. Does it have negative or positive connotations? Can you think of a parallel phrase that applies to women? How does being surrounded by ladies’ men affect the way that Sydney feels about her sexuality and her connection to men? Can you relate to Sydney’s thoughts or experiences?

14. How does the construction worker treat Sydney? What does he represent? Does Sydney want his attention? Why is she so upset when he calls her “Princess”? Why does she stop short of telling him how wrong he was to catcall her? What would you have done if you were in Sydney’s shoes?

15. Why did Meredith’s visit go so badly? What could Sydney have done to make it better? Why didn’t Sydney go with Meredith when she had the chance? What do you think would have happened if she had?

16. How is Nicco different from the other men in Sydney’s life? In what ways is he similar? Why is Sydney so drawn to him? Do you think she will eventually let him back into her life?

17. Jake calls Sydney a slut when he catches her with Nicco. How did this make you feel? What does Sydney think about this word? Who are her role models for sex and relationships, and what does she learn from them?

18. Does Sydney like the art that Jake brings into the house? How does it make her feel? Why do you think this book is called Girl, Unframed?

19. Why does Sydney take the blame for Jake’s death? Why does Lila allow her to? How does their relationship change after Sydney does this? How does Sydney herself change?

20. Why do you think the author chose to start each chapter with a running list of evidence? How does it affect the pacing of the story? What information does it give you about how Sydney’s summer will end? Do you think this was an effective way of sharing that information?

Extension Activities

1. A number of artists and works of art are mentioned in the book. Choose one of these artists and study their works. Research their attitudes toward and treatments of women. Then write an essay about how these attitudes are reflected in their artwork.

2. Create your own work of art depicting your version of a “beautiful” woman. You can base it on one of the works mentioned in the book, or start from scratch. Will your woman have a mouth? A head? Will she have her own power and agency? How will you incorporate emotion or circumstance?

3. This book is dripping with similes and metaphors. Find your favorite example of this literary device from the book, and then take a turn at writing your own. What do these elements add to the book? How do they help to develop a writing style?

4. One of the detectives didn’t believe Sydney had killed Jake, but the grand jury heard arguments that she had. Pretend that you are a lawyer for the prosecution, and build your case. Can you prove that Lila was the killer? What exhibits would you enter as evidence? Who would you call to the stand? How might your choices impact the trajectory of the trial? Work with a small group to discuss and map out your plan.

5. Sydney and Nicco visit a number of San Francisco landmarks, including Alcatraz, the Camera Obscura, and the labyrinth. What landmarks in your community would you want Sydney to see if she came for a visit? Why are they important to you or your community? Get a group together to visit one or more of these landmarks, and try to experience them as though for the first time.

6. Nicco fills his notebook with the little moments that he wants to remember, like a toddler with sandy knees or an elderly couple holding hands. Spend a day writing down your own observations and overheard phrases. Consider using them as inspiration for a poem or short story, or share your most surprising and unexpected records with a classmate. Did this experience cause you to look at anything differently? Will you continue to write down your observations?

Guide written by Cory Grimminck, Director of the Portland District Library in Michigan.

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. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit simonandschuster.net or simonandschuster.net/thebookpantry.
Photograph © Susan Doupé

Deb Caletti is the award-winning and critically acclaimed author of over sixteen books for adults and young adults, including Honey, Baby, Sweetheart, a finalist for the National Book Award; A Heart in a Body in the World, a Michael L. Printz Honor Book; and Girl, Unframed. Her books have also won the Josette Frank Award for Fiction, the Washington State Book Award, and numerous other state awards and honors, and she was a finalist for the PEN USA Award. She lives with her family in Seattle.

More books from this author: Deb Caletti

More books from this reader: Alexandra Allwine