Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Meryl Streep Movie Club includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Mia March. 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.
Three estranged women—two sisters and the cousin they grew up with after a haunting tragedy—find unexpected happiness in the most unexpected way: by watching Meryl Streep movies together. It is only when the three are summoned to their family matriarch’s inn on the coast of Maine for an important announcement that they are able to reconnect through surprising and heartfelt discussions of movies such as Out of Africa and Mamma Mia! and discover who they really are and what they truly want.
With warmth, depth, and candor, Mia March skillfully opens the lives of these three very different women, each coping with their own challenges and secrets.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Consider the novel’s epigraph, which is one of Meryl Streep’s lines from the film Out of Africa: “Perhaps he knew, as I did not, that the Earth was made round so that we would not see too far down the road.” What does this quote mean to you? How does it relate to the novel?
2. The Meryl Streep Movie Club brings together a collection of unique characters. Was there one character with whom you most identified? Discuss your favorite characters and why you felt drawn to each.
3. Isabel wants to use a “magic” ravioli recipe to help reignite a spark between herself and her husband, Edward. Do you have a special dish, place, song, or something that you think of as “magic” for you and someone you love?
4. In the prologue, readers indirectly learn that something devastating happened to Lolly’s husband and Isabel and June’s parents on New Year’s Eve. However, the specifics are not directly revealed until later in the novel. How did this intensify the revelation of what happened that New Year’s Eve? Did you find this technique effective? Why or why not?
5. At the beginning of the novel, June, Isabel, Kat, and Lolly are all leading separate lives. What ultimately must happen for them to unite? What do they each have to let go of in order to reconnect with each other?
6. “And then one day, Edward said, you realize right in the middle of whatever you’re doing that you’re not thinking about it, and it gets better from there, becoming a piece of you instead of everything you are” (p. 11). Do you agree with this description of grief? Discuss the ways in which recovery from loss connects various characters in the novel.
7. “All that was left of John Smith was a face she’d never forget, a face she saw in Charlie’s every day” (p. 29). Do you think it is possible to fall in love at first sight? Why or why not? Discuss June’s character. How does her encounter with Charlie’s father both haunt and enhance her life?
8. Isabel, June, Kat, Lolly, and even many of the minor characters hold heartache at the center of their lives—death, affairs, divorce, guilt, dropping out of college, being afraid to love. Do these difficulties make you care about or relate to the characters in a deep way? How do you think the context of the story determines your expectations and opinions of the characters?
9. “The feel of flour sifting through her fingers, of dough, warm and pliant and sweet-smelling in her hands, of chocolate chips and fruit, always lifted her heart in the way movies did for her aunt. The way playing with Happy did for Isabel. And the way June looked when her son sat on her lap at meals, unable to get close enough to her” (p. 139). Do you have a hobby or favorite activity? Is there something that brings you as much peace as baking does for Kat? What do you think each characters’ favorite activity says about them?
10. June’s son, Charlie, does not know his father. He becomes more aware of not having a father, grandparents, or family on his father’s side when he is given a school assignment to complete his family tree and much of it is left empty. Did you agree with June’s decision to seek out the man she only knew for two days and never saw again? Discuss why you think this may have been a good or bad decision.
11. Isabel and June’s stories open the novel, and readers don’t hear Kat’s story until chapter three. Why do you think the author chose to introduce the sisters first? Would you have felt differently about them if we’d been invited to the inn first, to get to know Kat and Lolly before the sisters? Discuss your thoughts.
12. Lolly makes her big announcement on page 50 and shocks her daughter and two nieces. Did her news come as a surprise to you? What did the author do to set up this announcement and make it so dramatic?
13. How does the movie The Bridges of Madison County mirror the lives of the characters in the novel? Can watching a fictional account of something familiar be helpful? Can it be harmful? Compare and contrast the movie’s themes, events, and characters with those of The Meryl Streep Movie Club.
14. Which do you think was more difficult and shocking to Isabel: Edward’s betrayal or Lolly’s news that she is dying of cancer? Which do you think would be more difficult to deal with?
15. Lolly and the girls find deep meaning even in comedies and musicals, such as when Lolly points out that she and Kat were in the same situation as the mother and daughter in Mamma Mia!—only their roles were switched. Identify and talk about other examples from the book in which a comedy or lighter film leads to a discussion of a serious topic.
16. Which Meryl Streep film described in the novel do you most identify with? Why? Are there any other Meryl Streep movies not included in the narrative that you think Lolly and the rest of the “club” would have enjoyed?
17. How did reading her mother’s letters impact Isabel?
18. There is a moment toward the end of the book when Edward visits the inn and lets Isabel know that he still loves her, even though he wants to marry someone else. What does Isabel realize about her feelings toward Edward in this scene? What does she realize about herself? How might the scene have played out differently?
19. Lolly, Isabel, June, Kat, Pearl, and other guests meet regularly to watch their favorite Meryl Streep films and then discuss them. How is their club similar to your own book club experience? How does it differ?
20. Kat has always lived at the inn and fears being trapped there. Isabel, in contrast, always wanted to get away from the inn as a child and now wants nothing more than to stay. Are there any examples in your own life where you wanted to get away from a place, person, or situation only to discover later that you wanted it back? Which of the new “three captains” do you envision remaining at the inn and following in Lolly’s footsteps?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. At the beginning of The Meryl Streep Movie Club, there is a list of ten Meryl Streep movies, all of which are viewed by the characters in the novel. Select one to watch with your book club members. Do you find you can relate to some of the movie scenes and characters the way the women in the book did? Discuss the movie you watched with the group. Did watching the movies help to deepen the discussion of the book?
2. The author writes, “A Meryl Streep movie was as good as chicken soup, a best friend, a therapist, and a stiff drink” (p. 56). Do you have a favorite comfort—be it a movie, actor, book, writer, album, song, television show, or artist? Share your response with the group.
3. Isabel and June’s mother kept copies of letters she sent to her daughters. Fifteen years after her death, they have the chance to read those letters. As adults, they revisit what their mother thought through her words—not just what they thought she thought. If you don’t do so already, try keeping a journal. Start off with recording your thoughts and activities for a week and see if a habit forms! You may decide to continue writing in it regularly.
4. The Three Captains’ Inn is a safe haven for the characters of the book. It is also a place where they reconnect in deeper and more meaningful ways than before. Consider getting away to an inn, bed and breakfast, or another retreat with your discussion group, friends, or loved ones with whom you’d like to reconnect.
A Conversation with Mia March
Why Meryl Streep? Was she an obvious choice from the start, or did you have a list of possible contenders? Could there have been an Audrey Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor Movie Club?
Meryl Streep was always the only choice. The novel was actually inspired by the very beautiful and incredibly talented actress, who has been a favorite of mine since I was a teenager. When I was around thirty, a family holiday visit was going the way holidays with family can sometimes go . . . . happy to be together, but some arguing over everything under the sun—from whether to put garlic in the mashed potatoes to something that was said twenty years before. You know those holidays, right? After dinner, my mother, grandmother, and I settled down with popcorn to watch The Bridges of Madison County—and whoa. The discussion afterward changed everything. We opened up to one another that night, understood things about one another we hadn’t before. All because of the issues and emotions raised by the film—and by the acting talent of Meryl Streep. I never forgot that night. And some years later, while watching another Meryl Streep movie (Heartburn, one of my favorites of all time), I realized I had a story to tell. About how movies—and watching movies with others—can change your life in unexpected ways. That I could do that, and pay tribute to one of my idols, Meryl Streep, was a true labor of love.
It seems that oftentimes people decide not to bring kids into the “cruel world” due to the difficulties, pain, and problems in the world. But Edward and Isabel make a pact as teenagers for a more specific reason—because they want to avoid turning their kids into “grieving orphans” like themselves. Did you find their reason more compelling?
I’m so interested in exploring the complicated shades of gray in people. Edward and Isabel’s pact was so sad to me (I cried as I wrote that scene, whereas sixteen-year-olds they lay under that oak tree, hand in hand, staring up at the stars and making a decision from a place of terrible grief, a decision they carry into adulthood). As a teenager, I myself made decisions about the world based on my emotions and experiences—some that held me back from things I didn’t even know I wanted until I was much older. That’s what I wanted to examine in fiction: how you can sometimes get yourself stuck, but with change and growth you can pull yourself right out. Sometimes you can do it yourself, and sometimes you need help. And sometimes who helps is the one you least expect.
You do a great job of writing intense moments, and then moving on—like in the prologue and Isabel’s discovery at the end of chapter one. How do you decide, as a storyteller, where to break scenes and chapters? How do you know when to transition from one character to another?
Thank you! Interestingly, I didn’t write the prologue until after I finished writing the entire novel. The book opened with Isabel, and every time I started to read page one, I couldn’t put my finger on what was poking me. Finally I realized I wanted to open with Lolly, wanted to frame the novel with Lolly’s voice and the night that changed everyone’s lives. The prologue made me suck in my breath because of what happens, and within a few pages we’re in Isabel’s point of view where she’s so hopeful, so determined to save her marriagewith memories of who she and Edward once were—and then it’s all shot to pieces. As a writer, I’m drawn to looking at what happens when you’re trying, trying, trying (even as Lolly was in the prologue), and then in a moment, everything changes, whether subtly or with a terrible clang. I think a writer just naturally feels when to move on, to a different character or to a different scene/setting. It’s not conscious for me. That’s one of things I love most about writing fiction: how mysterious it is.
You work with multiple points of view. How do you decide which characters to channel for different scenes?
Structurally, since I had three main characters and about three hundred manuscript pages, I envisioned they would watch nine Meryl Streep movies together—three movies for each character’s point of view. And I thought I knew which movies would be viewed through which character’s eyes—until I started writing. Another wonderful mystery of writing fiction! The Bridges of Madison County and Heartburn were both naturals for Isabel, as they deal with affairs, but when I started to write the Mamma Mia! scene, which I envisioned for June’s point of view, I realized how deeply affected Kat would be for different reasons, and I rewrote that scene, then ended up changing it back. I always try to go with my first instinct, but there was lots of rearranging and sticky notes posted on the manuscript during my revision phase! The opening scene of chapter four, which is Isabel’s second point-of-view chapter, was originally the end of chapter three and in Kat’s point of view. But when I re-read it in manuscript form, I felt in my bones that as a reader, I wanted to be back in Isabel’s head; I wanted to know what happened after she ran out of her husband’s affair’s home. And I thought it would be interesting to have Lolly’s announcement occur in Isabel’s point of view because Isabel was the most distant from Lolly. So much for first instincts!
Your characters all seem like well-adjusted people, but they have a lot of pain in their lives. They have lost close loved ones at early ages, suffered affairs and betrayals, lost jobs and homes, dropped out of college and let go of dreams. Do you find that difficult situations make for more compelling writing? Or do you generally let events unfold on their own?
Okay, I’ll be really honest here. The thing I love most of all about writing fiction, why I write, is because I can work out issues, emotions, and experiences vicariously through my characters. None of the characters is based directly on me or anything that has happened in my life, but I’ve experienced loss and betrayal and change and all sorts of life occurrences, big and small, good and bad, and some things I wanted to explore through fiction. What would this character do with this pain? How do I wish something painful had unfolded in my own life? I can give anything to a character, make anything happen, within reason, of course, if it fits that character. Sometimes, though, something I want to happen doesn’t ring true for the characters or story. When I set out to write the book, Kat was going to marry Oliver at the end. But when I got three-quarters of the way through, I knew she couldn’t. And shouldn’t. Not yet, anyway. I do think she’ll come back from Paris and marry him. I want her to.
In the prologue, you reference the film When Harry Met Sally. In chapter three, you introduce Kat, who is afraid to admit she’s in love with her best friend. Was this a deliberate connection to the ongoing argument in the film regarding whether a man can be “just friends” with an attractive woman? What’s your opinion on the subject and how did it influence your telling of these women’s stories?
When I was in my late twenties, one of my best friends was a wonderful guy named David. We met through a friend on a sort-of blind date, very quickly realized we had zero chemistry, and became great friends instead.
One day, while bemoaning a relationship that didn’t work out, he threw his hands up and said, “Why can’t I just fall in love with you? That would be perfect.” We both laughed over that. If only we could, life would be so easy. So yeah, I absolutely think men and women can be friends. BUT. But, but, but, when one of the friends gets a significant other, that S.O. might not be too comfortable about it. David soon fell madly in love with someone who was very unhappy about our friendship. Yadda, yadda, yadda, the friendship drifted away.
I don’t think I consciously brought up When Harry Met Sally (except that it’s one of my favorite movies), but the notion of male/female friendship—with Oliver and Kat; with Matteo and Kat at first, with Henry and June—was certainly an undercurrent. Again the unconscious working in interesting ways!
Do you have a place like the “alone closet” that you escape to? Or when you need to work out something in your story?
My “alone closet” is the shower. There you are, absolutely naked, with hot water, soap and delicious smelling shampoo. The shower is the best place to cry and think and dream.
You’ve created characters with separate lives, but weave those lives together so they fit perfectly at the inn. Do you have a favorite character in this book?
I love all the characters, was so emotionally invested in everyone, including Happy, the sweet stray dog, but I have a very special fondness for Henry Books. He’s a bit in the background, but such a strong-and-silent-while saying- so-much type with crinkly Clint Eastwood eyes.
What made you decide to match Isabel with a reflection of herself in Griffin? Was it important for him to have experienced infidelity for him to really understand what she was going through? And for his daughter to be, in many ways, a reflection of who Isabel had once been?
I knew I wanted Isabel to fall in love with a single father with his own complicated history, someone who’d “been there, done that,” especially because the betrayal was so fresh for her, and to let her see for herself that Edward was wrong about her and her maternal instincts. At first I thought Griffin would have only a young child. But then fourteen-year-old Alexa, with her scowl and iPod and sad anger, came barreling through the doors of the Three Captains’ Inn before I even made the connection between her and Isabel. As I was writing, especially the scene with Alexa sobbing in the Alone Closet, I realized that Alexa would represent a reinforcement for Isabel that she needed to forgive herself for the teenager she’d been, in all ways.
What came first: the characters, the plot, or the idea to frame a book around a Meryl Streep Movie Club? How did the elements all come together?
The idea of a fractured family of women watching movies together—particularly Meryl Streep movies—and how the ensuing discussions bring them back to one another (inspired by my own experience of watching The Bridges of Madison County with my mother and grandmother) came first. But then the main characters—Isabel and June and Kat, and Aunt Lolly, all came in a rush. I knew their names and their stories and the smallest details—like the stray dog that adopts Isabel just when she needs that unconditional love. The characters’ stories came first before the movie selections, though. Given Isabel’s and June’s and Kat’s individual stories, I looked at Meryl Streep movies that reflected what they were going through, what they had to deal with. The incredible collection of Meryl Streep films runs the gamut of emotions. I’d already seen all the films I reference in the book and then watched each at least twice again. There were a few movies I thought I’d have the characters watch, but then ended up not using, like the amazing One True Thing. (Sophie’s Choice is sacred to me, as it is to Lolly.) Once I wrote the first movie scene, with the women watching Bridges, the discussion came so naturally because the characters’ different reactions helped create and cement who they were, what they thought and believed, how they felt. The farther I got into writing, the more I understood each character through those discussions, and the easier the revision process became. That’s the magic of movies.
Finally, the obvious question: what is your favorite Meryl Streep movie? Why?
My favorite is Out of Africa. Stunning and beautiful and heartbreaking and powerful and life affirming. Honestly, I can hear Meryl Streep’s voice as Karen Blixen in my head: “I had a farm in Africa,” and I can suddenly be transported to that coffee farm on the foot of the Ngong Hills. Knowing that the movie is based on a memoir, that it’s an amazing woman’s true life story, makes it all the more powerful. But Meryl Streep, the breathtakingly talented actress, brought that fiercely independent, brave, gifted, compassionate woman to life and had me on the edge of my seat, emotionally and otherwise for over two hours. And good Lord, is Robert Redford a thing to behold in this film.