Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Soldier's Wife 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.
Alexa Riley eagerly awaits the return of her husband Dan, a major in the British Army, after a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan. But the long-awaited reunion isn’t as perfect as she imagined, as her husband struggles to put the horrors of war behind him and readjust to family life. But for Alexa—who has been putting her own career dreams on hold while raising their three girls—the distance between them, both while Dan is away and at home, is unbearable. This poignant look at the inner workings of a modern military family questions just how much one is willing to compromise for family and what happens when love and vocation collide.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Although Dan has returned home to England, in what ways is he still in Afghanistan? What are some of the biggest adjustments he has to face at home?
2. How do Dan and Alexa both contribute to the breakdown of communication in their marriage? What is the most vital information each one withholds from the other? What motivates Dan? Alexa?
3. Many outside forces affect Dan and Alexa’s marriage. Discuss how the events involving Isabel, Gus and Kate, and the wounded soldiers impacted their reunion.
4. Discuss the support system of women who emerge in the novel. Consider Franny, Mo, and Mel’s character in your response. In what ways does Mel represent a different path for military wives? Do you have a group of friends you turn to for support?
5. Discuss the generational differences among the Riley military men: Eric, George, and Dan. What issues pose a challenge for Dan that his father and grandfather did not experience in their day? In what ways do the two elder Rileys have the benefit of hindsight?
6. Compare the descriptions of day-to-day life on the military base with life in London. In what ways is the city an escape for Alexa?
7. Dan and Alexa’s friends and family subtly involve themselves in the couple’s relationship. Do you think actions taken by well-meaning outsiders helped or hurt Dan and Alexa’s relationship?
8. What role does Jack Dearlove fill in Alexa’s life that Dan cannot? Does Jack overstep his bounds in any way? Does Dan have the right to feel jealous or threatened?
9. How does Isabel’s unhappiness at boarding school illustrate the turmoil within the Riley family? What message do you think is Isabel trying to send to her parents?
10. Discuss the roles of hierarchy, structure, and authority in The Soldier’s Wife. How does the leadership styles of Mrs. Cairns, Mack, and George differ? In your opinion, does a family need structure or an authority figure?
11. How did you react to Dan and Gus’s decisions about their military service? Do you think each man made the best decision for his family? For himself?
12. Do know anyone from your personal life who has served in the military? Did reading The Soldier’s Wife affect your perception of what it is like to serve—both for service members and their families? Do you think this depiction of a military family is accurate? Why or why not?
13. What do you think the future holds for Dan and Alexa, both in their relationship and in their careers? How do you imagine their story playing out?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The characters in The Soldier’s Wife are all avid tea drinkers. Host a proper British tea to set the mood for your discussion. For tips on what to serve and how to brew a proper pot of tea, visit www.thedailymeal.com/how-host-tea-party.
2. Discuss a time in your life when there was a breakdown in communication in one of your own relationships—whether it was with a partner or spouse, family member, or friend. What happened? How did you address the situation? What was the final outcome? What did you learn from the experience?
3. Supporting military families is one of First Lady Michelle Obama’s main objectives. Visit www.whitehouse.gov/joiningforces to learn more about the effort, search for service opportunities by zip code, or simply send a message of thanks to a military family.
4. For more female perspectives of military life, consider reading Home Front by Kristen Hannah, Lipstick in Afghanistan by Roberta Gately, or Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington for your next book club pick. Discuss the differences and similarities between both novels.
A Conversation with Joanna Trollope
In the United States, we often only hear about our own country’s efforts in the war in Afghanistan. What do you think Americans would be surprised to learn about England’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan?
I suspect that the similarities would surprise them. We are neither of us in Afghanistan to defend our own territories or even honour – our presence there is discretionary, which causes huge controversy, and we are facing an enemy whose territory it is, and who aims to maim and kill. I think an American reader might also be surprised at the level of British commitment.
What inspired you to write about military families? Did your own experiences in the Foreign Office shape your approach to this subject in any way?
No – my time in the Foreign Office was so long ago, and concerned Chinese relations with the Third World, mainly Africa, so it wouldn’t have been at all relevant to this novel. But I wanted to re-visit an emotional area that I had tackled twenty years ago in The Rector’s Wife, namely the difficulty of being married to someone else’s committed calling. I didn’t want to go back to the Church, and the modern Army seemed to me to be the perfect example of a profession about which the public feel very strongly, protectively and sentimentally, without quite understanding how exceptionally difficult their chosen path is for their families to live with and try to accommodate to.
Before writing The Soldier’s Wife, you conducted extensive interviews with military families. How did you earn their trust and what was the most surprising thing you learned in the process?
I had to obtain official clearance to speak to soldiers, and presumably they had to do the same to talk to me. But as I am a novelist, and not a journalist, I wasn’t seen as too great a danger! And once that permission was given, I found everyone in the military that I talked to extremely warm and open and helpful – to a remarkable degree. In fact, the most surprising element was how eager the soldiers in particular were to demonstrate their skills and explain their commitment and motivation. They live and breathe what they do.
Alexa longs to return to her career, which she put on hold in order to support her family. After speaking with military wives, how did you learn about how they balance work, marriage, and motherhood?
With great difficulty. And the younger they are, the harder they find it, because the submissive attitude of my generation of Army wives, prepared to subsume their own ambition into that of their husbands is almost a thing of the past. Modern girls understandably want to exercise their own talents and capacities, and are not prepared to make the sacrifices and compromises that earlier generations were brought up to do .All the wives I spoke to fantasized about one day owning a home and not having to have their children in boarding school because their fathers were being constantly moved around.
You are quoted on your website, www.JoannaTrollope.com, as saying: “Being born somewhere with a strong local sense, like the Cotswolds, gave me not just a sense of rootedness, but a capacity to value landscape and weather and the rich life of smallish communities. It wouldn’t matter where I lived now, I’d always carry that centered feeling of having come from somewhere very well defined with me.” In contrast to your own background, how does the absence of “having roots” affect Alexa, Dan, and Isabel?
Hugely. I would say of myself now that my roots in people run much, much deeper than my roots in any place, and this is how Isabel, especially, feels. Dan and Alexa have both grown up with peripatetic childhoods, so even though they are used to moving physically, they need stability in their relationships almost more than they either know or are prepared to acknowledge.
You’ve previously said that you love to write about female strength and the female capacity for endless self-reinvention in your novels. How did you address these themes in The Solder’s Wife?
By showing how agonizing it is for someone like Alexa to be completely thwarted in her ambitions by Dan’s chosen way of life – the army simply cannot and does not admit of compromise.
The Soldier’s Wife focuses on the inner workings of a marriage. What do you think readers can learn from Dan and Alexa’s struggles?
I suppose that loving someone truly and deeply will mean, to some degree and at some stage, acknowledging that you can’t have it all personally, or your own way all the time. They decided that they wanted to stay together, but that meant facing a future with long separations and isolations, because there were some things neither could sacrifice.
Like Alexa, you’ve also worked as a teacher. Can you tell us more about this experience? What did you teach? Do you think this previous profession affected your writing in any way?
I imagine that every single thing that I have done and been through has affected my writing – I would hope so, anyway! And teaching – actual teaching –can be so rewarding and exciting since you are, quite literally, engaging with the future. I taught all kinds of things at various stages, from English literature to adults, English to foreigners, Literature and language to children between 10 and 14, and Advance Level English to those in the final years of high school. I loved the kids and the subject, but was never very good at the rest of institutional school life, I’m afraid…
A Washington Post review described your “depictions of family life reach, at their keenest, genuine universality.” What do you think are the universal themes in The Soldier’s Wife?
The age old dilemma of how much you owe yourself, and how much you owe those you love and/or are responsible for – the abiding female question! As well as a look at what it is that makes anyone in uniform so seductive, our attitude to the rights of our children, and the nature of friendships formed out of proximity and necessity.
What are you working on now?
I’m chairing the Orange prize for literature, and re-working Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility as a contemporary novel – a fascinating exercise as so much of it is so modern, with Marianne’s sense of emotional entitlement and Elinor’s perpetual concern for practicality and restraint.