Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Breaking the Bank includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Yona Zeldis McDonough. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Harried single mom Mia Saul tries to juggle her career, personal life, and raising her ten-year-old daughter, Eden, with not-so-great results. After her husband, Lloyd, leaves her for a manicurist, Mia struggles to regain some semblance of a normal life, but when her ex conveniently leaves the country and forgets to send child support, she finds herself scrambling to make ends meet. When she discovers a bank machine that bestows free money, Mia decides that she will share the wealth with those who need it as badly as she does.
Questions for Discussion
1. Mia finds a magical ATM that dispenses free money. Do you think Mia made good decisions about dispersing the money? What would you do if you ever found such a machine?
2. The author opens the novel with the following epigraphs: “Money doesn’t talk, it swears,” a line from Bob Dylan; and “Money talks, all right. It says good-bye,” from author Richard Russo. Why do you think she chose those particular quotes?
3. Do you think Mia’s family was justified in staging an intervention? How might they have handled it differently? Was her outrage appropriate?
4. Both Fred, the sweet, mild-mannered bartender, and Patrick, the unpredictable free spirit, intrigue Mia. Who do you think is better for her, and why?
5. What did you think about Gerald Mofchum, the enigmatic jeweler, and his mysterious disappearance after selling Mia the locket? Was obtaining the Keats locket just part of Mia’s “magic”?
6. How would you describe Mia’s parenting style? Do you think she is a good parent? Can you relate to her struggles as a single mom? How is her relationship with her own mother?
7. How does Mia’s ex, Lloyd, undermine her relationship with Eden? How might she have handled Lloyd’s visit differently?
8. In Breaking the Bank, Mia is editing a book about recycling and America’s growing trash problem. How does she try to incorporate “green living” into her own life?
9. Mia seems to mourn the loss of her relationship with Stuart, her only brother. Why do you think they’re not as close as they used to be? Why does she feel especially betrayed when she learns Stuart has been talking to Lloyd?
10. When Mia and Eden meet up with Lloyd and his new girlfriend, Suim, for dinner, Mia is surprised at her reaction to her ex: “And when he started to tackle the whole topic of wine, Mia was ready to take her fork and stab him in the thigh. Had he always been like this and she had just failed to notice? Or had she been so in love that she hadn’t cared? . . . Mia, however, was beside herself, and she moved from annoyance to rage to finally, amazingly, something like relief.” Why do you think her opinion of Lloyd changed?
11. Do you agree or disagree with Lloyd’s decision to take Eden to his parents’ place in North Carolina indefinitely? Is it a better environment for Eden?
12. When Mia finally breaks down and confesses where she’s actually getting her money, Patrick believes her but Fred doesn’t. Why do they respond differently? What do their reactions say about their characters?
13. After her ordeal is over, Mia discovers “her heart . . . was resilient in ways she would not have guessed. It was stretched, it was sore, but despite Patrick’s silence, it was far from shattered.” Were you surprised by Patrick’s departure in the end? What lessons do you think Mia learned from her experience with the magical ATM?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Mia has her tarot cards read by Fred’s mother, Bev. Bring a set of tarot cards and do readings for your members. (You can use the book Tarot Made Easy by Nancy Garen, to help beginners interpret the cards.)
2. Mia, the lead character in Breaking the Bank, works on a book about environmental awareness. Discuss ways your book group can make a difference and adopt one “green” habit. Many websites can provide suggestions, such as www.campaignearth.org.
3. To find out more about author Yona Zeldis McDonough, check out her official site, www.yonazeldismcdonough.com, which includes information about her other titles as well as biographical information.
A Conversation with Yona Zeldis McDonough
Q. Where did the inspiration for a magical ATM come from? What sort of research process did you undergo for this novel?
A. I was having a conversation with my brother and he asked why whenever the bank made an error, it was always in their favor. I agreed, but was then reminded of an incident that happened years earlier (before the advent of ATMs) when a young teller gave me four hundred dollars more than I was supposed to get. I admit I got a little rush when I saw all that “found” money; it was thrilling and I had a few seconds of imagining what I might do with it. But I knew I couldn’t keep it and so I returned to the window and pointed out the mistake to her. She was enormously grateful; it turned out she had only been on the job for a week or so, and her error would have gotten her fired. I told all this to my brother and it prompted me to think about what might have happened if the “giver” had not been a person but instead one of the by-now ubiquitous ATMs. Would that have changed my feelings? Those musings were the first stirrings of this story.
In order to research certain aspects of the novel, I consulted with the community outreach office at my local police precinct; they were able to show me around the building (my first time seeing an actual jail cell and a holding pen) and outline certain aspects of police procedure. I also did some research into U.S. paper currencies, and the ten-thousand-dollar bill, to find out if such a large denomination had ever existed, and if so, when.
Q. When beginning a new novel, do you have a set outline that you follow, or do you go where the narrative takes you?
A. In writing fiction, I never work from an outline. Instead, I work from a voice that starts whispering, with varying degrees of intensity and urgency, in my ear. I wait to hear that voice and when I do, I am led by it. I feel like the writing, when it is going well, is less about invention and more about faithful transcription.
Q. In your earlier works, such as In Dahlia’s Name and The Four Temperaments, and also in Breaking the Bank, a central theme seems to be a strong sense of family. How important is family to you? How much inspiration do you draw from your real life?
A. I think family is the primal narrative; it’s the first cast of characters for every single person on earth. When I was younger and writing only short stories, my work was more concretely autobiographical, but in my novels, this has been less true. Instead, I’ve attempted to weave bits and pieces of my own experience into a larger fictional context. Sometimes the connections between the work and the life are apparent to me at the outset; other times, those connections are forged in a less conscious way and I become aware of them only after the fact.
Q. You’ve written adult novels and a great many children’s titles. How is writing for an adult reader different from writing for a young one? What made you decide to write in both genres?
A. I wrote my first children’s book because my mother, a painter and illustrator, came to me with a contract in hand. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write for children or if I even could. Now I find that I enjoy it very much; it offers an interesting and useful balance to the other work I do. The books that are most satisfying to me are the chapter books (I’ve written three), which are in effect novels for children.
Q. Mia is a modern woman faced with all the agonies and ecstasies that go along with that. Did you set out to address the struggles that single working mothers face today?
A. Not in any deliberate way, but once the character took hold, I realized that I could articulate the concerns, frustrations, and hopes of so many women who find themselves in this position.
Q. You were the editor and a contributor to The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty. How did you come to be involved in this project?
A. In 1998, I wrote an essay about how much I continued to love Barbie despite the backlash against her; the essay appeared in the Lives section of The New York Times Magazine and it generated sufficient interest for me to put together a book.
Q. You wrote an article about thrift stores for The New York Times (December 5, 2008). Is thrift-store shopping a passion of yours?
A. A deep and abiding passion. I’ve always been drawn to the lure of the old. The more worn, used, discarded, and abandoned it is, the better I love it. The smell of mildew gets my heart racing. I feel like I am rescuing these objects, finding meaning and value in what has been left behind.
Q. What are you working on next?
A. A novel about a fortyish former ballet dancer, somewhat bitter, somewhat dissatisfied, living in New York City. At the outset of the book, her younger sister dies suddenly, and the protagonist moves in with her brother-in-law to help out with her three young nieces and nephews.
Q. If you were to find a magical ATM like Mia, what would you do with the money?
A. Aha! The 64,000-dollar question! I think I’d splurge a little (redoing the kitchen, taking my daughter to Paris) and then make sure I had money tucked away for my children’s education, my retirement, etc. And I hope I’d follow Mia’s example and give a good bit of it away.