This reading group guide for The Fabulously Fashionable Life of Isabel Bookbinder includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Holly McQueen. 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.
Isabel Bookbinder, an aspiring Top International Fashion Designer, has many comedic encounters while pursuing her latest dream job. Initially considered a “failure” with no direction in life, she struggles to gain the respect of her family. Through lying to get her foot in the fashion industry’s door, she is able to get a head start on her career. Isabel uses the support of her friends to get through the hardships related to romantic and professional relationships. After having a rocky beginning, Isabel’s life starts to turn around and come together as she realizes the necessary steps she must take to obtain her dream.
Enhance Your Book Club
- Throughout the novel Isabel talks about not wanting to become a “Stepford Wife.” How does this direct her decisions within her relationships with Will and Ben? What actions show their perspective on gender roles? Do you think social class plays a role in one’s attitude toward the opposite gender?
- Isabel is considered the black sheep of her family. How do you think this label affects her determination to succeed? Would you say Isabel changes her career goals in order to avoid failure and disprove her family’s judgments?
- Isabel continuously tries new careers in attempts to find something that brings her satisfaction. She strives to find happiness and respect through her career choice. How do you think this attitude affects Isabel’s persona? Do you believe the actions she takes to achieve this goal are justified?
- In order to begin her career in the fashion industry, Isabel fabricates the truth. “Oh, Mum’s fine now . . . her and my dad run their own organic farm in Somerset. Making . . . er . . . honey wine.” What consequences, both positive and negative, does that behavior have? Do you agree with her actions? How do you think she could have gone about the situation differently?
- Isabel desperately tries to fit in and conform to what she thinks other people’s ideals are. She changes her clothing style depending upon where she is going to be. Can you relate to changing aspects of yourself in order to be accepted? In changing the way you look or act, do you think you are losing your identity?
- In what ways is Isabel challenged while pursuing her new career choice? What obstacles does she overcome? Do you think she handles the setbacks appropriately? If you were in Isabel’s shoes, how would you have gone about starting a new career differently?
- Part of Isabel’s desire not to become a “Stepford Wife” drives her to become more independent. “But I think when he [Will] sees me all settled in my new place, he’ll realize how important it is for me to live on my own for now.” How do you think her newfound independence will affect Isabel’s self-esteem? Do you think it will help her grow as a person and create more opportunities in her future?
- Throughout the novel Isabel seeks out the approval of others. She longs to be accepted into the fashion industry’s exclusive circle. Do you agree that it’s okay to forfeit your own standards to gain the approval of others’? What other options did Isabel have?
- How does Isabel’s dysfunctional family life carry over into her personal and professional life? Do you find similarities between roles she has with certain family members and those with her peers?
- What do you think is so appealing to Isabel about having a relationship with Ben? Would you say the way it made her look in the eyes of others affected her decisions during their short relationship? How did this relationship benefit her? What realizations was she able to make as an outcome of this relationship?
- Which of the characters were you most able to relate to? Which one stands out most to you? What makes that character appealing?
- Throughout the novel, Isabel tries to prove herself to both her family and peers. What events do you think made her succeed in doing so? At what point do you think she started getting her life together without the prodding of others?
- How do you feel Isabel’s expectations of success affected her chances of succeeding in the fashion industry? Ultimately, do you think her discouraging realizations about this industry will make her want to pursue a different, possibly more glamorous, career? If so, what career do you think Isabel would turn to next?
A Conversation with Holly McQueen1. In a previous interview you stated that being a novelist was your dream job. How does it feel to have been able to make your dream come true?
- Isabel spends hours trying to come up with her own “signature look.” Have your book group come to a meeting wearing their own signature looks. Find something that each member feels represents herself and her inner fashionista.
- Isabel continuously follows her dreams. What are your dreams? If you could choose any profession that would make you feel your life is complete, what would it be? What would your life look like if you were to have followed and obtained all of your dreams?
- Hold one of your book group meetings at a location you think Isabel would go to. Submerge yourself into her fabulously fashionable, “cool,” and “glamorous” life style.
Unbelievable! That said, on a day-to-day basis I don’t think about it too much—I’m normally too busy being in a panic about a deadline or getting frustrated that a character isn’t ending up on the page the way she is in my head. But when I stop to think about it (or, more often, if my marvelous husband reminds me) I can’t believe how lucky I am. 2. In The Fabulous (Double) Life of Isabel Bookbinder, Isabel wants to be a writer, like yourself. However, in this novel, The Fabulously Fashionable Life of Isabel Bookbinder, Isabel wants to be a fashion designer. Do you have an inner fashionista of your own? Do her career aspirations correspond at all to yours?
I wish I had an inner fashionista! It’d be very useful to have her on hand to prevent fashion disasters. But the answer is no—I absolutely love clothes and I’m a bit of a handbag obsessive, but having spent some time working at Vogue
I’m all too aware of how seriously true fashionistas take their clothes and how incredible they look. I’m in awe of the best designers’ and stylists’ creativity but I couldn’t possibly do it myself!3. Isabel uses a mood book to write down inspiring ideas. Do you have a “mood book” of sorts for novel ideas?
As a stationery addict (one thing I do have in common with Isabel) I’m forever buying gorgeous little notebooks with the intention of scribbling down my ideas. But invariably I haven’t got one on me when inspiration really strikes . . . so I always end up texting myself the idea instead.4. When you were creating the characters, did you base them on anyone in particular?
Not deliberately, that’s for sure! I think I accidentally on purpose always end up putting bits and pieces of real people in my characters, so they’re generally hybrids. Either that, or I end up putting aspects of certain people into two or three different characters. My husband, for example, has inspired both Will and Barney (attractive and
a coffee/food obsessive). And both Isabel and Lara have bits (the good and bad) of me and of several of my friends.5. Isabel is not afraid to follow her dreams. What advice would you give young women about following their own dreams? Do you think there is a certain point in time when one should “give up” on her dreams if they did not work out and do something more practical?
It’s a cliché, but the best bit of advice I could give is to say that you should believe in yourself because if you don’t, nobody else will. And once you’ve done that bit, find somebody else who believes in you, too, and stick to her like superglue! Hard work doesn’t hurt either. And I refuse to believe that anyone should give up on her dream if it doesn’t work out. I’m not saying you can’t modify your dream a bit, maybe put it on hold, to deal with the practicalities of everyday life—everyone has bills to pay. But I think the world would be a much poorer place if people didn’t have the capacity to dream—against all the odds.6. When writing your novels, what does “The Woman You Write For” look like?
The one thing I’m sure of is that she’s always glamorous, even if (especially when!) she’s at home in her pajamas with a streaming cold and bed hair. And she’s definitely young, whether she’s twenty-five or seventy-five (age is just a number). And the fact that she’s beautiful, inside and out, goes without saying. Young, glamorous, and beautiful. Just like Isabel’s imaginary clientele . . . 7. Isabel was considered the black sheep of the family; what would you say is your role in your own family? Can you relate to the family dynamics described in your novel?
I think that in my family I’m the entertainer . . . I hope I’m not the black sheep, but maybe my family would tell me otherwise! I think it’s interesting that so often the role we take in our family is the role we take in the outside world, too. In Isabel’s case, I think the fact that she’s the black sheep in her family often makes her feel like the black sheep or the outsider in the real world. In some ways, then, I can relate to the family dynamics in the novel—though I’m much luckier than Isabel regarding my own parents!!—because I think, just as she does, that I take aspects of my behavior within my family and present those to the outside world.8. What would you say your signature look is? What do you consider the unspoken “uniform” in the writing industry is?
Right now, sadly, my signature look is sweatpants and a hooded top. This is what happens to my “style” when I have a deadline to meet. Mostly, though, I’m a jeans addict, and because I feel ridiculous in anything frilly or boho, I stick to very clean, simple lines, often with a blazer on top. Oh, and I always carry a bag that I’m in love with, too. As for the writing world’s “uniform”—hmmmm . . . hollow eyes and a third Martini?9. Creating a certain image is a major issue for Isabel. Is this something that you feel is important? What are your views about societal standards?
I think image is very important, though in some ways I wish it wasn’t! I think society is unhealthily obsessed with the way women look, and what I try to do with Isabel is to make it clear that, even in the fashion industry, there is far, far more to life than image. That said, I think one of the most wonderful things about being a woman is our ability to alter our image and our appearance, to present a certain “face” to the outside world. It is supposed to be fun, after all! I get very depressed by the societal standards that take all the fun out of it, by dictating to women that they “should” look a certain, very limited, way. 10. Isabel has many issues with men, whether it is jumping to conclusions or not being treated as an equal. Did you include these issues to make them more noticeable in the public’s eyes?
I certainly didn’t include them deliberately—Isabel’s issues with men are very personal to her and her situation. However, I think many women of Isabel’s age are struggling to find their way through what is still very much a man’s world, and to find a way to do it without losing their own femininity. I do feel passionately about women feeling independent, but I also think that the kind of partnership of equals that Isabel is searching for is the most powerful thing of all.11. To Isabel, having her own fragrance line would be considered the epitome of success. What would be the epitome of your success?
Here in the UK, we have a radio show called Desert Island Discs
where well-known people choose eight music tracks they’d take to a desert island if they were stranded there. Long before I was ever published, I used to listen to the show and dream about how I’d be on it one day (I confess, I regularly daydream about the music I’d choose), so for me, appearing on that would pretty much be the icing on the very wonderful cake!! In the event that this doesn’t happen, however, I’d be pretty chuffed if I saw a stranger reading one of my books on the bus or the train . . . and smiling. That would be a pretty fantastic pinnacle.12. What’s next for Isabel? Will we see her trying out yet another career?
Isabel never rests on her laurels—a wedding-planning career is, in fact, what awaits her . . . It’s proving incredible fun to write!