Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Mistress's Revenge includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Tamar Cohen. 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.
When her affair with the sexy, successful, and happily married music moghul Clive Gooding unceremoniously ends, Sally Islip decides to take matters into her own hands. Her partner, Daniel; their two young children; and her once-promising career in magazine journalism can’t quite compare to Clive’s burgeoning triumphs in the music business, his St. John’s Wood home, and his picture-perfect family. Sally’s romance with Clive unspools in her recollections of their collaborations, their intimacies, their secrets and lies. When Clive wins a prestigious music award and plans to renew his wedding vows, Sally decides that he must suffer for dumping her. And she’ll stop at nothing, including befriending his devoted wife and his newly pregnant daughter, to get back at him.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. How does Sally feel about her therapist’s advice to chronicle her feelings about the end of her affair with Clive? To what extent does The Mistress’s Revenge feel like a private journal? Who do you think is its intended audience? What does it reveal about Sally’s emotional state?
2. Sally scornfully writes: “You…in . . . your detached, pale pink St. John’s Wood villa. . . me . . . in my partitioned cubbyhole in my shabby, three-bed terrace” (p. 2). How do differences in wealth, professional reputation, and social status play out in Sally’s relationship with Clive? What role does Sally’s envy of Clive’s wealth factor into her anger with him for breaking up with her?
3. Do you think Sally’s best friend, Sian, enabled Sally’s affair with Clive? What does the progress of Sian’s relationship with Daniel, Sally’s husband, reveal about her character? Why doesn’t Sally seem to feel a greater sense of betrayal toward Sian than she does?
4. How do Jamie and Tilly experience their mother’s absorption in her failed affair with Clive? In what ways do they voice their feelings to Sally? How does Sally’s seeming disinterest in her own children’s lives relate to her obsessive attention to the lives of Clive’s offspring?
5. “How did it feel, I wonder . . . listening to your wife chat away to your mistress? Oops, I mean ex-mistress of course. I can’t imagine it was terribly comfortable, although I’m sure you carried it off with your usual insouciance” (p. 11). Why does Sally seek deeper connections with Clive’s family in the aftermath of their breakup? Is it safe to describe Sally as a sadist? To what extent might she be justified for her emotional cruelty?
6. Do you feel that Clive’s wife, Susan, suspected Sally of being the other woman all along? If so, what gives you that inclination?
7. “So strange now to think that for years our friends saw Daniel and me as the poster couple for a healthy relationship” (p. 23). How would you characterize Sally’s relationship with Daniel? Why isn’t Daniel more assertive about mending their relationship when Sally seems so emotionally disconnected from him? Does the fact that Sally and Daniel aren’t legally married allow Sally to feel less guilt about cheating on Daniel? In what other ways does Sally try to justify her actions?
8. How does Sally’s publication of her “End of the Affair Diary,” in the Mail, take her vengeful behavior to a new level? What about befriending Clive’s wife and daughter? Why doesn’t the threat of exposure really concern her? To what extent does Sally feel that she has nothing to lose?
9. To what extent is Sally an unreliable narrator? How does your questioning of Sally’s sanity affect your reading of The Mistress’s Revenge?
10. Sally’s cyberstalking of Clive and his family reveals the extent of her obsession. In your opinion, how do sites like Twitter and Facebook change the way we conduct relationships? Do you think this kind of cyberstalking is a natural outgrowth of social media?
11. What was Sally trying to prove when she has a one-night stand with Pete, the pub manager in Hoxton? To what extent does her sense of herself as a sexual being seem to be defined in terms of Clive’s appreciation of her? What role does her medication seem to play in her judgment and her behavior?
12. Why does Clive resort to blackmail and intimidation to achieve his desired separation from Sally? How does he manage to distance himself from these acts? Why doesn’t Sally seem to feel more threatened, particularly when her daughter is approached by one of Clive’s hired goons? What does Clive’s behavior reveal about his true character?
13. How does the domestic financial ruin that Sally ignores, while actively pursuing her revenge fantasies against Clive, finally bring her own situation with Daniel and the children into crisis? In light of the birth of Clive’s first grandchild, what does Sally mean when she threatens her ex-lover: “You will pay, Clive. You all will pay” (p. 236)? What terrible vengeance is Sally planning?
14. How did you feel about the resolution of Sally’s affair with Clive? Why do you think the author chose to end her novel with this outcome? How does the novel’s conclusion relate to the injustices Sally and Clive perpetuated one against the other over the course of the novel? Do you think justice was achieved? Why or why not?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Share your best and worst relationship stories with your book club. Try asking: Have you ever been in a relationship that ended badly? Which side of the break-up were you on? How do you think about that time of your life now, and how do you feel about the person you were once involved with? If there is one moment from a failed relationship that you could take back, what would it be? What’s the craziest memento you’ve ever kept from a love affair or relationship? Do you think any of Sally’s actions were justifiable or understandable?
2. Write a letter or an email to an old lover in which you examine your feelings about your past relationship and explore any grievances you may still hold. You may want to treat your letter as an emotion journal, as Sally does in The Mistress’s Revenge. Would you ever consider sending your letter to your former beloved? Why or why not?
3. Do you have any revenge secrets or fantasies of your own? Have everyone in your group send some kind of relationship secret to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can see other revenge secrets by visiting www.revengesecrets.tumblr.com.
A CONVERSATION WITH TAMAR COHEN
The Mistress’s Revenge is your first novel. How did you come up with the idea for your protagonist, Sally Islip? Were you inspired by any classic fictional tales of romantic revenge?
Even the most logical and rational of people can find themselves possessed by an urge for revenge when deeply wounded. Where matters of the heart are involved, that urge can become overwhelming. The great classic writers were well aware of the dramatic potential offered by this conflict between reason and passion. But while I wish I could say The Mistress’s Revenge was inspired by Jacobean melodrama or Shakespearean tragedy, the truth is that Sally Islip owes much more to Fatal Attraction than to Hamlet, more to Tiger Woods’s mistresses than to Iago. I wanted to write a modern book about a woman scorned. I didn’t really know who she would be until I started writing. And then, immediately, I knew exactly who she was.
How did narrating The Mistress’s Revenge exclusively from Sally’s perspective impact your experience of writing the novel? At any point did you consider an omniscient narrator? How did you channel or get into the mind of this very troubled character?
I wanted to write from a first person perspective because obsession and heartbreak and desire (whether for love or for revenge) are such primeval, impalpable emotions that it’s impossible to experience them except from the inside. It’s strange, but when I first started writing as Sally, she appeared as a normally sane woman who just happened to be in the throes of a crisis, but the more I wrote, the less sane she revealed herself to be. I didn’t really have to “channel” her—she just seemed to do it all by herself.
Do you think that many of your readers will be able to relate to Sally’s experience as a scorned lover?
Anyone who can’t relate to it in some degree has obviously had a very fortunate love life—or no love life at all. Some of Sally’s emotional responses were drawn from my own past romantic experiences, others from talking to friends. The difference is that while most of us might fantasize about things we’d like to do to a lover who’s gone cold, Sally actually does them. I hope that, for that reason, women readers particularly will experience a kind of “there but for the Grace of God” recognition.
To what extent did you base your depiction of Sally’s suffering on any real-life experience?
No one gets to their midforties without being affected in some way by rejection and infidelity, either directly or indirectly. And while I’ve never been a stalker like Sally, nor been quite so neglectful to my own children (I hope), I know what it’s like to feel that life is spinning out of control. Just before writing The Mistress’s Revenge, I experienced what I guess could be called a midlife crisis—a gut-wrenching feeling that options were closing off all around me—and was prescribed antidepressants for a while, just as Sally is. Those parts of the book—the GP, the prescription pills, the feelings of incipient madness—are largely taken from my experience at that time. You feel suddenly as if you’ve moved into a parallel universe away from your normal, healthy life, where everything is the same and yet not the same. It was quite a scary time, so I do recognize a lot of Sally’s fears and understand how easy it might be to lose grip on reality.
Of all of the characters in The Mistress’s Revenge, whom do you relate to most, and why?
Slightly worryingly maybe, I relate most to Sally because while she does these terrible things, she still manages to find a black humor in even the most desperate situations, and because her feelings are so raw and so exposed.
Some of your nonfiction books include Deadly Divorces and Killer Couples. Is it safe to say that you have an interest as an author in relationships that go awry? What draws you to these stories?
There’s very little of interest to say about a straightforward, healthy, perfectly functioning relationship, is there? Be honest, would you rather listen to the friend who tells you at length how great her relationship is or the one who is open about the arguments, and the disappointments, the flaws? Tolstoy wrote that happy families are all alike, whereas every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The same holds true for couples. I’m interested in the complex dynamics of dysfunctional relationships, partly due to inherent nosiness (not for nothing was I a magazine advice columnist for five years), partly because hearing about other people’s failings always makes me feel marginally better about my own, and partly in the hope of learning how not to make the same mistakes they did (particularly the murder-related ones!).