Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Daughters-in-Law includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Joanna Trollope. 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.
Rachel Brinkley has devoted herself fiercely to her three sons and continues to do so now that they are all grown up. But when her youngest, Luke, gets married, Rachel finds that her control begins to slip away. Charlotte and Rachel butt heads almost immediately, but when Rachel’s other son, Ralph, discovers his wife’s affair, it quickly takes center-stage. Even Edward, the eldest and most settled son, finds his marriage to Sigrid troubled by the family drama.
As these subtle rifts rise to the surface, the Brinkley family is forced to find new loyalties and call old assumptions into question, while Rachel must find a way to preserve the relationships she holds most dear.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. The novel opens with Anthony fixating on his soon-to-be daughter-in-law’s figure. How does this affect your opinion of him? Does it set any expectations for him as a character, or for the book as a whole?
2. Early in the novel, Petra is regarded as the standard by which the other daughters-in-law are judged. Who suffers most from this comparison? Petra, Charlotte, or Sigrid?
3. The daughter-in-law relationship is traditionally more fraught than that of the son-in-law. Why do you think this kind of tension exists? Whom did you identify with the most? The daughter-in-law or the mother characters? Why?
4. The novel shifts in perspective many times. How do the varying viewpoints shape your reading experience? Do you enjoy certain characters more than others? Would you have preferred more from a particular viewpoint?
5. How does the author avoid stereotyping the characters? How realistic are the ways in which the characters grow and change throughout the novel?
6. How would you characterize Ralph, as a father and husband, in comparison to Edward and Luke?
7. Did you find yourself taking sides with any of the characters? Which incidents were the most polarizing? How did your sympathies for the characters shift throughout the novel?
8. Did you understand Rachel’s outburst over Charlotte and Luke’s announcement? Why or why not? Was her reaction forgivable? How would you have responded if your mother or close family member acted similarly?
9. How large a role does proximity and distance play in the family relationships of Daughters-In-Law? Would Sigrid be frustrated with her own family if they were closer, as Edward argues? How large of a role does distance play in your own family?
10. How did you react to Luke’s refusal of Charlotte’s help? What would you have done it were you?
11. How much of a role does obligation play in Petra’s relationship with Rachel and Anthony? To the rest of the family?
12. How understandable and/or forgivable were Petra’s actions regarding Steve? Is it an affair even if they never had sex?
13. Steve goes from being a source of comfort to Petra to being verbally abusive. Did you predict this shift in their relationship? Were you surprised by their argument, or by Petra’s response to his proposal?
14. Do you think there are any heroes or villains in the book? If so, who are they?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Petra, Anthony, and Marnie are artists in their own right. Plan an art-related activity for the group. Consider visiting a local gallery or museum, taking a drawing class, or visiting a nature preserve to sketch with your book club members.
2. The Minsmere Reserve where Petra meets Steve is a real place. Find photos, maps, and information about the star bird species at Mimsmere by visiting http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/m/minsmere/index.aspx.
A CONVERSATION WITH JOANNA TROLLOPE
Daughters-in-Law portrays women from several different generations, ranging from Rachel and Marnie to Petra and Charlotte. How did you go about finding their voices?
I suppose finding the voices of women of different generations is a function of the imagination. While I’m actually writing, I am describing a movie running in my head, complete with sound track, and I’m also conscious of inhabiting each head as a character speaks. So I suppose that what I’m doing is somehow being each person as I make them speak, irrespective of their age or gender.
What are the challenges and conveniences of telling a story from multiple perspectives? How do you decide which viewpoint to tell a certain incident from? For example, why did you focus on Mariella during the lunch debacle at Luke and Charlotte’s?
Just as changes of pace are important in a novel in order to refresh the reader as she or he goes along, so are changes of viewpoint—it’s hard work to read only from one person’s sightline for 400 pages. It also, I think, gives a novel vividness and charm to surprise the reader sometimes with an unexpected viewpoint, and when adults are behaving badly—as in the scene the question cites—that point can be subtly and powerfully made by seeing their conduct through more innocent (though not less knowing!) eyes. So each scene, in my view, is enhanced by being given, as it were, to an often unexpected character as the filter—it gives the narrative validity and energy.
You have written more than 15 novels. How has your creative process changed over the years? Do you see an arc or progression in your work?
I don’t think the way I write has changed hugely—still the months of research, still the same plotting of the first quarter and then the end, still the handwriting—but I think my style has evolved, rather than changed, and is possibly more economical and lighter now. And that, I’m sure, is a direct response to the loyalty of readers that has (over what is now decades!) given me the confidence to pare everything down a bit and emerge with a way of writing that has more impact and less elaboration.
Daughters-in-Law is full of women who find their strength. For example, Petra and Marnie are very different characters who both unexpectedly take control of their lives. Is this a theme you return to often in your work?
I love female strength and the female capacity for endless self re-invention as themes for novels. It never ceases to amaze me how women can go on evolving all their lives, and how many of them go on opening their minds to new ideas and fads and fashions at almost any age. And of course, the longer you live, the more you turn into a person flavored by decades of experience, which in turn often rewards you with the confidence that growing up in a largely (still….) male dominated society (however lovely a lot of those man are!) isn’t there at the beginning. So, acquiring control is still a huge achievement for many, many women and makes a wonderful topic for fiction, as it’s no less than a kind of real triumph.
You once said that you did not see yourself as a feminist writer. What kind of writer do you identify yourself as?
A contemporary writer. If I’m doing anything, I’m trying to chronicle the way we live now—i.e how we live as shaped and sometimes dictated by modern customs and morality. And as modern culture affects all of us, I don’t really think my novels are gender, or sociologically, specific.
Anthony and Petra both turn to nature to find comfort and inspiration. What are your own sources of inspiration?
Other people. I can’t get enough of them, whether it’s people known to me or perfect strangers observed on public transport. All fascinating and illuminating.
Are you an artist yourself? What kind of research did you do for Anthony and Petra’s drawing scenes?
Oh I wish! I can’t draw and I can’t sing and I can’t dance, which is why I am so completely beguiled by people who can! I studied a number of well known bird artists for this novel…and learned a very great deal, but I simply can’t do it myself….
The novel has a marked lack of villains, with the possible exception of Steve. Do you believe there are ever true villains in real life, or are there always extenuating circumstances?
It’s not so much malevolence that makes villains in real life (though there are beasts out there, I know….) as muddle. And I think most people are complicatedly shades of grey, rather than black and white, good or bad. I don’t even think Steve is a villain, I think he’s an inarticulate man who resorts to anger when frustrated and doesn’t have the words or emotional maturity to express himself any other way. The aim was to make him credible, rather than a simple hate figure, which would have been unbelievable and clumsy—someone who arouses fear because he isn’t fully in control of his stronger feelings.
Is there any kind of message you hope readers will take away from Daughters-in-Law?
Only what I hope emerges from all my books, which is that a bit of empathy towards our fellow humans makes living with ourselves and other people a more successful business!
Why did you choose to focus this novel on the relationship between mothers and daughters-in-law?
Most women have, or are, a daughter-in-law, even in the loosest sense, and also I can’t help noticing that mothers behave differently to their daughters in law than they do towards their sons-in-law—even if this last statement is a generalization! And I like to investigate topics that apply to very many of us—I am more interested in the common ground than in any arcane situation that only concerns a very few….And I’m at an age where very many of my friends are mothers-in-law!