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Discussion Questions: The Day of Atonement

Monday, September 14th, 2015

The Day of Atonement_LissThe bestselling author of such novels as A Conspiracy of Paper and The Whiskey Rebels continues his masterly run of “atmospheric” (The Washington Post), “page-turning” (The Baltimore Sun), “tremendously smart” (Newsweek) historical thrillers. In The Day of Atonement, David Liss blends meticulous period detail with crackling adventure in the tale of one man’s quest for justice—and retribution.

1.  Two big themes of the novel are vengeance and mercy. Do you think the two are mutually exclusive? Can you be both vengeful and merciful at the same time?

2.  Discuss the meaning of the title The Day of Atonement.

3.  The novel ends before we know how Roberta responds to Sebastiao. What do you imagine she says to him? What would you say to him in her place?

4.  Do you see Sebastiao’s concept of justice evolve at all throughout the novel? If so, how, and what do you think prompts the change?

5.  Comparing his own deception to Roberta Carver’s, Sebastiao thinks, “The Carvers’ crime against Settewell had been unforgiveable. It was not a slightly unscrupulous take on usual trade—-it was theft, pure and simple. What I intended was, of course, much the same, but my scheme had the virtue of being retaliatory” (page 209). Do you agree with the idea that his actions are somehow more justifiable because they were preceded first by another crime? Is revenge ever justifiable?

6.  Which of the characters in this novel do you most identify with, and why?

7.  At the start of Chapter 1, Sebastiao declares, “I am not a kind person. . . . If I am a monster, however, I am monster made, not born” (page 19). What does this opening suggest about the nature of goodness and evil? After reading the novel, do you agree or disagree with his declaration?

8.  Compare and contrast Roberta and Gabriela. What do you think the two women represent to Sebastiao, and how do you see that change over the course of the novel?

9.  At the end of his final confrontation with Azinheiro, Sebastiao is faced with a very important choice. Were you surprised by the choice he made? In his shoes, do you think you would have made the same one?

10. How do you think your opinion of the characters might change if this were a book of nonfiction, and not a novel?

Discussion Questions: The Same Sky

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

The Same Sky_Ward_No TargetFrom the acclaimed author of How to Be Lost—also a Target Book Club pick—comes a beautiful and heartrending novel about motherhood, resilience, and faith—a ripped-from-the-headlines story of two families on both sides of the American border.

1. At the beginning of the novel we learn that Carla’s mother left for Texas when Carla was just five years old. How does that experience shape Carla, for better or for worse?

2. Carla and Alice come from very different backgrounds, but their lives are ultimately connected. What qualities or personality traits do they share?

3. Carla’s journey to Texas is life-threatening and heartbreaking, but she never gives up. Where do you think she derives her strength and faith from?

4. Jake becomes very angry about the way Alice handles the situation with Evian. Do you think his anger is justified? Why or why not?

5. What do you think Alice learns from her relationship with Evian? How does it contribute to her broader outlook?

6. Through the different experiences of Alice, Jane, and Carla, the author explores three unique attitudes toward motherhood. What resonated with you about the experiences of all three characters as they reflected on the idea of motherhood and its role in their lives?

7. At various points in the novel, Alice and Jake disagree about whether or not they should continue trying to adopt. What would you do if your spouse told you that he or she couldn’t take the heartbreak of any more failed adoptions?

8. Despite her best efforts to protect him, Carla is ultimately left with no choice about what to do with Junior. Do you agree with her decision? Can you imagine what you might have done in her shoes?

9. After Alice and Jane lose their mother to ovarian cancer, and considering Alice’s own battle with breast cancer, Alice can’t understand why Jane still refuses to find out if she’s at risk as well. Jane maintains that she’d rather live freely with risk than miss out on certain parts of life. Which sister do you agree with? Why?

10. Throughout the novel the narrative alternates between Carla’s perspective and Alice’s. Was there ever a point when you wished you could find out what was going on with the other character? When did this happen and why do you think you felt such a strong pull?

11. Were you surprised by how things turned out for Carla and Alice? Why or why not?

12. The issue of undocumented immigration is clearly essential to the plot of The Same Sky, and is a hugely polarizing part of the American experience today, but it doesn’t overpower the other themes in the novel. How do you think the author achieved that balance?

13. In addition to undocumented immigration, The Same Sky deals with issues of love, motherhood, personal health, rape, adoption, economic inequality, and many more. Of all the themes addressed in the novel (whether explicitly or implicitly), which was the most thought provoking for you? Why?

Discussion Questions: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

Hausfrau_EssbaumJill Alexander Essbaum is the author of Hausfrau, the striking debut novel of marriage, fidelity, sex, and morality, featuring a fascinating heroine who struggles to live a life with meaning.

1. That Anna. So—-really—-what’s her deal? Her thoughts loop on a script of immutable passivity, but is that her whole story? From the onset we know she is a flawed protagonist, a damaged character, a woman who is “nothing but a series of poor choices executed poorly.” Taking into account Anna’s personal history, her psychic and spiritual makeup, and those aforementioned poor choices, is there any part of this tragedy that somehow isn’t her fault? What should she be held accountable for? Of what, if anything, are you willing to absolve her?

2. Bruno proposes to Anna with the words “I think you would make a good wife for me.” What, in your opinion, would make him think that? They’ve been together for over a decade. By book’s end it’s clear that Bruno has either known about or suspected Anna’s infidelities the entire time. Why would he tolerate them? Why would he tolerate her? Is this a sign of his weakness or his strength? What does he “get” out of this marriage?

3. Mary, in her decency, stands in direct opposition to the self–centered narcissism of the majority of Anna’s actions. Simply put, Mary seems to be everything that Anna should be but isn’t. But the book suggests that Mary’s two–shoes aren’t altogether goody, so to speak. In three separate instances, she “spills” herself in front of Anna: when she drops her purse and blurts out a more–Anna–than–Mary expletive, when she drops her purse and the erotic novel (and the wistful truth that she regrets not exploring her sexuality) tumbles out, and, finally, when she admits to the bullying and setting the fire. In these ways, Mary has more in common with Anna than Anna is open to recognizing. Do you think Mary can see past Anna’s façade? Do you think she understands Anna on a fundamental level? If not, then do you think she would ever be able to? What do you think will happen to Mary after the book ends?

4. Anna’s lack of morality is almost shocking. What do you think is her gravest mistake? Is there any point during the course of the narrative where she could have stopped the progression of events?

5. Anna rarely tells Doktor Messerli the whole truth. Why, then, do you think she continues the analysis?

6. Anna has never learned to speak German, and yet she exhibits an unmistakable talent for language: she plays with words, turns puns, thinks in entendre—-though rarely does she speak these things aloud. Is it shyness that prevents her from showing this side of herself? Fear? What would it look like if Anna could tap into her “voice”? What would it change?

7. Of all the children, Charles is the most dear to Anna. Victor is too much like Bruno for Anna to fully trust. But as the sole memento of the relationship with Stephen, one might assume that Polly Jean would hold the spot closest to Anna’s heart. Discuss Anna’s relationship with her children. She won’t win mother of the year in anyone’s contest—-but is there any way in which she can be commended? Is there anything she does as a mother that is correct? Good? Nurturing?

8. Anna confesses she majored in home economics in college. Couple this with the perfect memory of sewing with her mother, and the seed of Anna’s present psychology begins to form. As her station as a wife and a mother starts to fail her (or rather, she, them), we are able to understand that somewhere in Anna’s fundamental self she was raised to be these things. Why does she cling to this fantasy if it doesn’t seem to suit her?

9. At the end of chapter 6, Anna thinks, “I wish I’d never met the man.” Which man do you suppose she means?

10. Doktor Messerli warns Anna that “consciousness doesn’t come with an automatic ethic,” and Anna’s choices seem to bear this out. Taking into consideration Doktor Messerli’s explanation of the Shadow, her story of the Teufelsbrücke, and the final events of the book, is it possible to argue that, ethics aside, Anna has come into complete consciousness?

11. Archie says to Anna that a man can smell a woman’s sadness. In the same vein, Anna talks herself through the morning after the physical confrontation with Bruno with a “You had this coming” speech to herself (“I provoked this. . . . I brought this to myself. . . .”). By this reasoning, Anna is an active participant in her own downfall. But Anna claims to be almost entirely passive. Do you consider Anna to be more passive or more active? How does this complicate your understanding of Anna’s psychology?

12. In terms of the structure of the novel, the analytic sessions with Doktor Messerli serve to explicate, illuminate, underscore, and complicate the plot of the book and any conclusion that Anna believes she’s arrived at. Are there any places in the book where this is particularly meaningful to you?

13. There’s an intriguing symmetry to the way that the grammar of the German language—-the tenses, moods, conjugations, false cognates, infinitives, et cetera—-lays itself out in a pattern that easily overlays the poignant heartbreak of the novel. And yet, one of the themes of Hausfrau is language’s ultimate inadequacy. Is that tension resolvable? If so, how? Is this something you have encountered in your own life?

14. The book depends upon the coolness of the Swiss, the impenetrable nature of the landscape, and the solitude of nighttime in order to fully call forth Anna’s deep despair and alienation. Could this book take place in another setting? Anna’s everyday environs—-the hill, the bench, the trains, the Coop—-become characters in their own right. Are there other functions the novel’s setting serves?

15. Hausfrau is in some sense a study in female sexuality. What might the author be suggesting about the sexual appetites of a woman at midlife? What might the author be suggesting about a woman’s emotional needs?

16. An entirely speculative question: What do you think will happen to Bruno and Victor and Polly Jean? Can you imagine their lives post–Anna?

Discussion Questions: Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken

Friday, August 7th, 2015

Thunderstruck_McCrackenFrom the author of the beloved novel The Giant’s House—finalist for the National Book Award—comes a beautiful new story collection, her first in twenty years. Laced through with the humor, the empathy, and the rare and magical descriptive powers that have led Elizabeth McCracken’s fiction to be hailed as “exquisite” (The New York Times Book Review), “funny and heartbreaking” (The Boston Globe), and “a true marvel” (San Francisco Chronicle), these nine vibrant stories navigate the fragile space between love and loneliness.

1. Many of these stories center on someone dealing with extreme loss—-the death or decline of a child or partner. What are the different ways characters rise out of their grief? Similarly, what strategies does Elizabeth McCracken use to keep the book from being mired in tragedy?

2. In “Something Amazing,” we meet the ghost of Missy Goodby. What other characters in these stories could be read as ghosts?

3. In the conversation included here, Ann Patchett reveals that three of the stories were once part of a novel that McCracken ultimately abandoned. Can you make a case for any story trio or trios being part of a single narrative?

4. The homes that punctuate these stories are often run–down, seedy, sad, or scary, and always unforgettable—-Joyce’s house on Winter Terrace, Stony’s rental, the property in southern France, the Blackbirds’ Victorian. What role do the structures they live in play in the characters’ emotional lives? Discuss the relationship between “houses” and “homes” in this collection.

5. Romantic love is not at the heart of this collection. Do you agree or disagree?

6. What is the role of travel in this collection? In what ways do foreign lands exist as fantasy for the characters, and in what way as reality?

7. What do you make of the end of “Thunderstruck”? Is Wes painting or is Helen? Discuss the interplay between the cynical and the miraculous in this story, and in the collection as a whole.

8. How do you interpret “Thunderstruck” as the title of the story? Which character is most “thunderstruck”? What about as the title of the whole collection?

9. McCracken is terrific at closing lines. Do you have a favorite? How would you describe the feeling it leaves you with?

Discussion Questions: Secrets She Keeps by Deb Caletti

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Secrets She Keeps_CalettiFrom bestselling author Deb Caletti comes a beautiful and profound novel of three women coming to terms with love and marriage—sure to move and delight fans of Kristin Hannah, Liane Moriarty, and Anna Quindlen.
“You don’t grow up on a divorce ranch and not learn to take a vow seriously.”

Use these discussion questions to guide your book club…

1. Imagine you were doing a six–week stint at one of the divorce ranches of yesteryear. If you could choose which women (past or present) you stayed on with, who would they be and why? Who’s your favorite of the characters at Tamarosa Ranch under Nash’s watch?

2. Of course, the divorce ranches weren’t all fun and games for women seeking quickie divorces, but as in The Secrets She Keeps, there’s a definite spirit of liberation, indulgence, spunk, and camaraderie underlying it all. What part of checking into a divorce ranch could you get used to, if you had to? What would be the hardest thing about it? How are these pros and cons addressed in the novel?

3. The notion of home plays a major role throughout the book. Callie loved her house so much that she’d “put up with almost anything if it meant not losing that brick pathway [she’d] planted with perennials.” Veronica, on the other hand, doesn’t know where she’ll call home once she’s officially divorced Gus. What does home mean or come to mean for each of the characters? Discuss the larger statement the novel might be making about home when human nature seeks both permanence and change.

4. At one point, Callie wonders, “What heedless actions would you change if you could read the future,” going on to say, “I don’t have the answer to that even now.” By the end of the novel, do you think Callie should want to change any of her “heedless actions”? Would you wish for the opportunity to edit your own life in such a way, or like Callie and Nash, do you believe in fate instead?

5. Callie and Shaye find it hard to believe that Nash never got married. Why do you think Nash never joined the ranks of married women? Would it have changed your impression of her if she ever had?

6. Jack tells Nash that seeing the wild horses changes a person; that it’s a message from nature that leaves you transformed. How does seeing the horses change Nash and Callie in fundamental ways? Can you describe a similar event in your own life that had the same effect on you?

7. Shaye’s love life, with its many conquests and questionable “dark storm clouds,” is completely at odds with Callie’s enduring marriage and domesticity. But they’ve both ended up at a crossroad in their lives and relationships, where they seem to be searching for the same thing. What is that thing and have they each managed to find it by the end of the novel? What lessons did they learn from each other’s disparate experiences and approaches to love that they might not have realized on their own?

8. How did it affect your read to have Callie’s marital issues set against the interwoven stories of the divorcees at Tamarosa Ranch? Did you see her problems as more trivial in comparison to those experiences or tantamount? How might you have seen her and the book in general differently if this were Callie’s story alone?

9. “Every person must come full circle to his or her rightful life, Nash knows. Sometimes, you have to make that same trip more than once.” Discuss how this sentiment applies to the journeys undertaken by the central characters.

10. One of the major things Callie grapples with is the expansiveness of life and its endless possibilities. At one point, she remarks that being in the desert “was a whole slice of life I knew nothing about, which makes you realize just how many such slices there are.” Later, she says, “There were so many possible lives to lead. Every day, you chose your life, even if you could forget that.” Do you think Callie finds this position liberating or maddening? Does the limitlessness she sees before her actually stunt her in some ways? On the flip side, why did she have to step outside of her little slice in order to be satisfied with it, and what made her choose that life in the end?

11. Did you realize all along that Callie was undergoing a legitimate midlife crisis or did this come as much as a surprise to you as it did to her? Why do you think she was able to hide it from herself for so long? Was it easier to see Thomas’s actions as more indicative of a midlife crisis for some reason?

12. Nash offers such comic relief to the story, even though she’s the one facing her own mortality. Do you think her clear–eyed, straight–shooting nature is a result of her nearing the end of her life, or do you see glimmers of that personality from her earlier years? What was your favorite life lesson learned from Nash? Does she remind you of anyone you know?

13. What did you make of Jack as a character? Nash says she fancied the idea of him rather than the man himself. Did you get the sense while reading that he functions more as an idea for her than a man? Or as a means to some

14. “When it comes to sisters, it seems that one stays and one goes, one remains bound and the other is set free. [Nash] is who she is in good part because of who Gloria isn’t. In order to be herself, in order to be different from her sister, she had to take what was left over, the opposite, unchosen road.” Compare the sister relationships in the book. Does this statement hold true in all cases? Does it apply to your relationship with your own siblings?

15. Discuss how the past and present are contrasted in the book, both in terms of character foils and times, mind–sets, customs, etc., either changing or staying the same. Do you wish any of the old, forgotten ways as portrayed in this story were still preserved? Like Nash, do you think we’ve come light–years from the bygone era of divorce ranches, or like Shaye, do you think those days might not be as far in the past as we’d like to believe?

16. Nash and Lilly exchange books in an act that bonds them as friends. Have you spoken the love language of books with your friends, and which are the stories you’ve gifted? Which book would you have given Lilly if you were in Nash’s place? Which would you have given Nash?

17. The opening chapter told from Nash’s point of view establishes the expectation of “a doomed mission of the heart.” Did you have any preconceived ideas about what Nash’s mission entailed, and if so, were you surprised by the revelation of her actual secret in the end?

18. Nash says she doesn’t know if she believes in happy  endings but that the story goes on. Do you think this particular story has a happy ending, or that things are left open-ended? What do you hope for these characters if that’s the case?

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman: Discussion Questions

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers_RachmanFollowing one of the most critically acclaimed fiction debuts in years,New York Times bestselling author Tom Rachman returns with a brilliant, intricately woven novel about a young woman who travels the world to make sense of her puzzling past.

Tooly Zylberberg, the American owner of an isolated bookshop in the Welsh countryside, conducts a life full of reading, but with few human beings. Books are safer than people, who might ask awkward questions about her life. She prefers never to mention the strange events of her youth, which mystify and worry her still.

Taken from home as a girl, Tooly found herself spirited away by a group of seductive outsiders, implicated in capers from Asia to Europe to the United States. But who were her abductors? Why did they take her? What did they really want? There was Humphrey, the curmudgeonly Russian with a passion for reading; there was the charming but tempestuous Sarah, who sowed chaos in her wake; and there was Venn, the charismatic leader whose worldview transformed Tooly forever. Until, quite suddenly, he disappeared.

Years later, Tooly believes she will never understand the true story of her own life. Then startling news arrives from a long-lost boyfriend in New York, raising old mysteries and propelling her on a quest around the world in search of answers.

Use these discussion questions to take your book club’s exploration of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers to the next level…

1. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers opens and closes with the character of Fogg. Why do you think this is? What does seeing Tooly through Fogg’s eyes do for us as readers? What do you imagine lies in their future?

2. Tooly keeps twenty–first–century technology at arm’s length. How do you think her upbringing might influence her relationship to technology?

3. Do you understand Humphrey’s dislike of “made–up stories”? What is the effect of having a character express this opinion within a novel?

4. Tooly wonders what it would have been like to live in “an important era.” Do you agree that the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty–first was an era of “relative calm, after all the proper history had ended”? What do you think makes an era important?

5. Tooly worries that there isn’t a “pure state of Tooly–ness.” Did you find Tooly an exceptionally malleable character? Do you think all people have the capacity to take on new personalities? Have you started anew at any point in your life?

6. Tom Rachman deliberately withholds plot information from the reader through nonlinear storytelling. When did you first begin to piece the story of Tooly’s life together? When were you truly surprised?

7. What are some of the different con games characters play on each other? Can you think of instances when a con was mistaken for love, or love mistaken for a con? Are there any moments when you felt that Tooly crossed a moral line?

8. This book is full of fathers and father figures: Paul, Venn, Humphrey, Duncan. Who do you think is the best father? The worst? How might each man’s own childhood have influenced his ideas about family and duty? Who do you think shaped (or engineered) Tooly the most?

9. In 2011, Duncan and his friends are leading very different lives than Tooly expected them to in 1999. How did their dreams as college students and their realities as adults diverge? Why does this surprise Tooly? In what ways is she unlike them?

10. Venn is described as “a being wrought of his own will, belonging to nothing.” What do you think is most important to Venn? Why do you think he drives Tooly away at the end?

11. Do you agree with Venn that Tooly was in love with him?

12. Humphrey calls Tooly “the favorite person of my life.” What are the limitations and the strengths of their relationship? How would Tooly describe what Humphrey means to her in 1988? In 1999? In 2011?

No Place to Hide by Susan Lewis Discussion Questions

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

No Place to Hide_LewisFleeing her native England with her three-year-old daughter, Justine Cantrell gives herself a new name and a new life in America. In a quiet midwestern town on the shores of glittering Lake Maxinkuckee, Justine hopes to recapture the fleeting days of happiness in the long-ago summers she spent with her grandmother. And though her memories of that time are scant, Justine knows they must have shared a special bond. After all, the power of her grandmother’s love has pulled her back to this haven in search of a new beginning.
But fate has other plans. The more Justine gets to know the small town and its people, the more she realizes that her grandmother had her own devastating secrets—secrets that will soon threaten Justine just as surely as her own dark memories.

If you’ve been reading with your book club or on your own, let these questions help you get thinking about the novel…

1. The subject of violence among children is central to the plot of this novel. Discuss violence in schools. What causes it? How can it be stopped?

2. How well do you feel Susan Lewis captured life in America? How does her experience living in Britain color her view of American life? Does her “outsider” status afford her unique insight, or are there elements of midwestern life that must be lived to be understood?

3. What do you think of Justine’s decision to leave England? Would you have done the same in her position?

4. Who surprised you most in this novel? Why?

5. Justine’s memories of England and of summers spent with her grandmother in Indiana are driving forces in this novel. Describe the function of memory and the past. How do Justine’s memories influence her decisions?

6. Both Justine and Grandma May kept carefully guarded secrets. Compare and contrast their secrets and their motivations for hiding them. In what ways are Justine and her grandmother similar? How are they different? Are there any parallels between their experiences?

7. Discuss Justine and Matt’s relationship. What were its primary strengths? Weaknesses?

8. Discuss the themes of prejudice and bullying among schoolchildren that come into play in this novel. What, if anything, could have changed in order for Ben’s experience to be different?

9. How would you describe Justine as a mother? How is her relationship with Tallulah different from her relationship with Ben? How is it similar? Did Justine inherit any parenting styles from her own mother?

10. What is the community in Culver like? How do Justine’s friends in America differ from her friends in England? Are there any particular qualities they have in common?

11. The theme of escaping the past is prominent in this novel. Can we ever truly escape the past? Is it possible to have a fresh start, or do we always carry our emotional baggage with us?

Discussion Questions: Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

Lucky Us_BloomDisappointed by their families, Iris, the hopeful star and Eva the sidekick, journey through 1940s America in search of fame and fortune. Iris’s ambitions take the pair across the America of Reinvention in a stolen station wagon, from small-town Ohio to an unexpected and sensuous Hollywood, and to the jazz clubs and golden mansions of Long Island.

Use these discussion questions to guide your book club in navigating this novel of heartbreak, love, and luck.

1. The day that Eva’s mother leaves her at her father’s house is the day that Eva loses one family and starts another. Have you ever been in a place where you have had to create a new family around yourself? What were some of the best parts? The worst parts?

2. Edgar’s mother once told him, “It’s good to be smart, it’s better to be lucky.” What do you think about that statement after finishing the novel? If you had to choose, would you rather be lucky or smart?

3. Iris’s ambition is what sets Eva and Iris on the road at the beginning of the novel. How does Eva’s ambition differ from Iris’s? Which sister, do you think, is more successful?

4. Eva and Iris find themselves having to constantly reinvent their identities as they travel around America. Has there ever been a time when you’ve reinvented yourself? Was it difficult to do?

5. Though so much of the novel focuses on Iris’s search for love, the relationship between Eva and Gus also becomes a central pillar. What do you think of their love for each other? How does their relationship compare with Iris’s experiences?

6. At one point, Eva says, “I looked for mothers the way drunks look for bars.” Do you think Eva ever found her mother figure? If so, who was it? If not, what family figures did she create instead?

7. Iris writes to Eva about memory: “I remember some things at a gallop, some moments from Ohio bearing down upon me in huge detail, and other things that are no more than small leaves floating on a stream. Memory seems as faulty, as misunderstood and misguided, as every other thought or spasm that passes through us” (p. 97). Do you think Iris is right about memory here? How do memory and forgiveness tie into each other?

8. Who was your favorite addition to Iris and Eva’s family and why? Francisco? Clara? Danny? Gus?

9. Each chapter is titled with song lyrics from the period, evoking the richness of the music during that era. What connection do you find between music and reading? How can music add new dimensions to a story?

10. The adventures of the novel begin after a few photographs on a beach surface. The novel ends with another photograph on a beach. How have the roles of Eva and Iris changed since then, and how has the role of photographs changed? Can a photograph ever fully capture a moment?

The Guest Cottage by Nancy Thayer: Discussion Questions

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

Guest Cottage_ThayerNancy Thayer whisks readers back to Nantucket in a delightful novel about two single parents who accidentally rent the same summer house—and must soon decide where their hearts truly lie.

Sensible thirty-six-year-old Sophie Anderson knows her role in life: supportive wife of a successful architect and calm, capable mother of two. But on a warm summer night, as the house grows quiet around her and her children fall asleep, she wonders what’s missing from her life. After her husband leaves her, she impulsively rents a guest cottage on Nantucket and leaves Boston for a family vacation, minus one.

Also minus one is Trevor Black, a software entrepreneur who has recently lost his wife. Trevor did not imagine himself raising a little boy like Leo—smart and sweet, but grappling constantly with his mother’s death–on his own. Hoping a quiet summer on the Nantucket coast will help him reconnect with Leo, Trevor rents a guest house on the beautiful island from his friend Ivan Swenson.

Best-laid plans run awry when Sophie and Trevor realize they’ve mistakenly rented the same house. Still, determined to make this a summer their kids will always remember, the two agree to share the Swensons’ Nantucket house. But as the summer unfolds and the families grow close, Sophie and Trevor must ask themselves if the guest cottage is all they want to share.

Discussion Questions for The Guest House by Nancy Thayer

1. On page 80, Sophie thinks to herself, “When one door closes in your life, another door opens. But what if the entire house comes down?” For Sophie and Trevor, a summer in Nantucket holds so much more than fun in the sun. They resolve unfinished business, get to spend time with their kids, and even learn to love again. Do you think any of this would have happened if they hadn’t had to share the guest cottage?

2. Living under the same roof, Sophie and Trevor are forced to compromise. Do you think they’re the better for it? Have you ever thought of a compromise you’ve had to make as an opportunity to grow?

3. Compare Trevor and Sophie’s parenting styles. What do you think each of their approaches say about them? What do they do differently? Do you think they learn anything from each other?

4. At Sophie’s dinner party in chapter 19, Connor tells the story of Wooly Bully, a stubborn bull that his wife succeeded in taming on their farm. Why do you think he tells this story to the Andersons and the Blacks?

5. On page 238, Trevor muses that perhaps the traditional family “never existed except on Christmas cards.” Do you agree with Trevor?

6. Similarly, in chapter 32 Trevor’s son Leo asks Sophie, “Are you my family?” How do you define family? How do you think it is defined in The Guest Cottage?

7. Sophie admits that she never loved Zack as much as she loved music, and Trevor acknowledges that he was drawn to Tallulah for superficial reasons. Do you think their reasons for marrying the first time were similar or different?

8. On page 204, Trevor observes that sometimes “people marry the wrong people to get the right children.” What do you think about that statement?

9. When Sophie sees the piano in the music room, her dreams of becoming a concert pianist come flooding back to her. Although music has always been her first love, she hasn’t played a note since she froze on stage as a teenager. Why do you think Sophie froze? What do you think enables her to play again?

10. Have you ever rediscovered something you were passionate about? What made you revisit it?

11. Throughout The Guest Cottage, Leo struggles to play the song his mother used to sing to him on the piano. Why do you think Sophie is the one who recognizes the song he is attempting to play?

12.  Sophie rents the guest cottage with help from the inheritance left to her by her unsinkable Aunt Fancy. Aunt Fancy was a woman of many mottos. “If I’ve gotta go down, I’m gonna go down in style,” Sophie remembers her saying. Even in memory, she inspires Sophie to love life and take chances. Does Aunt Fancy remind you of anyone who tells you, in one way or another, “If the horse throws you, climb right back on”?

Discussion Questions: Nantucket Sisters by Nancy Thayer

Friday, June 12th, 2015

Nantucket Sisters_ThayerFriendship takes center stage in New York Times bestselling author Nancy Thayer’s captivating, emotionally charged novel featuring all the tenderness and wit, drama and romance that readers have come to expect from this insightful, much-loved writer.

1. Maggie and Emily come from two different worlds—-while Maggie’s family lives on Nantucket year round, Emily is whisked off to a very different island, New York City, at the first sign of the summer’s end each year. Although the two girls build a world of their own each summer as “Nantucket sisters,” eventually the outside world lets itself in. Do you think Maggie and Emily are their best selves together? Have you ever had a friendship with someone from a different background? Did it make you see the world differently?

2. Emily and Maggie spend golden summers together building castles in the sand, creating magical worlds of their own, and forging grand plans for their future. What other relationships in Nantucket Sisters take place far from the eyes of the outside world? Why do you think they do?

3. Do you find yourself identifying more with Maggie or Emily? Why?

4. Emily’s mother, Cara, always disapproved of Emily’s summer friendship with Maggie and Ben, whose mother is a local seamstress. She encourages Emily to take sailing lessons and attend fundraisers where she will associate with “summer people” instead. How do you think the environments we grow up in and parental expectations affect us later in life?

5. Emily is passionate about the environment, especially that of Nantucket, and environmental preservation is about keeping the past and the future alive in Nantucket Sisters. Why do you think Emily lets her passion for the island fade? Does it correspond with emotional changes in her life?

6. Similarly, we find out in chapter 22 that against his family’s wishes Ben plans to build on the land his stepfather, Thaddeus, left him. What motivates his decision? Do you think he’s trying to block out his memories of Emily or be what she wanted him to be?

7. In chapter 10, Ben and Emily fight over expectations for their engagement. On the surface, the fight is about money, a source of tension that affects many relationships in Nantucket Sisters. Ben and Emily have gotten past this issue before—-what do you think is really at stake?

8. Maggie and Emily approach their pregnancies very differently—do you think the choices they make about raising their children reflect their personalities? What do you think you would do in either of their places?

9. Maggie’s grandmother Clarice has a motto, “You can’t keep a good woman down.” Clarice seems to grow more and more resilient as she ages, remaining a lively, supportive presence in Maggie’s life. Does she remind you of anyone you know?

10. Tyler comes back into Maggie’s life unexpectedly. Have you reconnected with a friend or a crush, years later? Did it surprise you?

11. As girls, Maggie and Emily work on a novel together, Siren Song, and Maggie grows up to be a writer, working on her novel on cozy winter evenings. What roles do you thinking writing and storytelling play in Nantucket Sisters?

12. Nantucket Sisters begins and ends with “a morning in heaven” on the beach. Is there a place that has always been special to you? Why is it meaningful to you?

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