Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Three Good Things includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Wendy Francis. 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.
Ellen McClarety, a recent divorcée who has opened a kringle shop as a creative outlet after the departure of her ex-husband, and her sister, Lanie, who juggles motherhood and a demanding career as a lawyer, are the heart and soul of Three Good Things. Ellen sees a connection with a customer from her store, but who will she choose when her past shows up unexpectedly? Meanwhile, Lanie sees her perfect life falling apart under the demands of motherhood. Both women long for the guidance of their mother, who died years ago, but left them with a wonderful piece of advice: “At the end of every day, you can always think of three good things that happened.”
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Serendipity is important to Ellen. What events are caused by serendipity in the book? Is serendipity always good, or does it sometimes have negative consequences?
2. How do you think the novel would be different if it had not been set in Wisconsin? How much does the setting influence how the characters act?
3. Describe Lanie and Ellen’s different reactions to their mother’s death. Why do you think they react the way they do? How does their mother’s early death influence them as adults?
4. “The secret to a perfect kringle, she knew, was balance…But Ellen knew that, as in life, no one element should overwhelm or supersede another” (p. 22). What does Francis mean by comparing kringles to life? How is Ellen’s life like her kringles?
5. What is the meaning of the riddle in the Book of Kringle?
6. What do the epigraphs from the Book of Kringle add to your understanding of the book?
7. Ellen is very invested in proper grammar and in Fowler’s Modern Usage. What do you think the appeal of such a rules-based system is to her?
8. Was Lanie right to be jealous of Samantha? How do you think you would have reacted in her position?
9. What is the attraction of Max to Ellen? What about Henry? Henry and Max are obviously different in many ways, but can you see similarities in them, too?
10. Rob compares completing his project to having a baby (p. 240). How do work and parenthood compare in the novel?
11. Rob, Lanie, and Ellen are all invested in their respective careers. What do they get out of work that they can’t get elsewhere in their lives?
12. Lanie and Ellen are different in many ways: their careers, their outlook on men, on life. How do they balance each other? Look in your own family: are their similar pairs?
13. Discuss the mothers in the book. What are the different types of motherhood that you see? What kind of mother do you think Ellen will be?
14. Lanie worries, “When on earth was she going to give herself free license to be herself? The thing was, she wasn’t sure if she knew who that self was” (p. 138). What does she discover at the end of the novel?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Make kringles using the recipe on p. 277 to share with your book club.
2. Kringles are a regional specialty for Ellen. Come prepared to discuss the regional foods from where you were raised. (Or prepare them for a buffet?)
3. A large part of the narrative is about how Ellen and Lanie’s mother has influenced them as adults. Think about how your mother has influenced your life, and share it with the group.
A Conversation with Wendy Francis
1. Some of the strongest relationships in this book are between sisters and mothers. Did your mother or sisters inspire the writing?
While I don’t have a sister, I do have a close-knit group of girlfriends who, in my mind, are like an extended family of sisters. I also have one brother, younger by ten years, who I feel protective of in much the same way that Ellen is protective of Lanie. Perhaps most influential in my writing of this book, however, was my mom. She was in her early twenties when she first became a mom, and she always says that the two of us grew up together. For me, though, it was a charmed childhood. My mom was, in my eyes, just like a big sister—kind, wise, cool, fun-loving, and loving. She was the inspiration for both the mother and the relationship between Lanie and Ellen in the book.
2. Lanie struggles with how to be a working mother. How do you manage it?
I don’t think it’s easy for any mom, whether she works in an office or at home with the kids. There never seem to be enough hours in the day. But somehow, moms across the country, indeed the world, manage it all. I think many of us wish we could be great at every aspect of what we do each and every day. As a mom, I’ve had to learn to let go of my perfectionist tendencies and roll with the punches more. Some days are better than others; other days I have to remind myself that it’s ok if only one thing got crossed off my to-do list or that I wasn’t as patient as I could have been with my four-year-old. It’s always comforting for me to talk with friends; almost all of us seem to be confronted with similar pressures. I think the answer to “how do you manage the struggles of a working mother” has a lot to do with balancing acts (some more successful than others); pulling from enormous reserves of energy, patience, and compassion; having a lot of help (whether from spouses, family, babysitters, or friends); and being sure to carve out some alone time in the day, even if it just means sitting in the tub, reading a book, going for a walk, or writing in your journal.
3. Where did the inspiration to use kringles as a metaphor come from? Are you a baker?
My uncle Terry, raised in Racine, Wisconsin (home of the kringle), introduced me to the delightful confection when I was a child. It was love at first taste. I’d never had a pastry so light and flakey and yet rich and satisfying, too. Whenever my uncle came to visit, he’d be carrying a wrapped kringle in his hands. Almond was my favorite flavor, but apple came in a close second. For me, kringle was inevitably tied to warm memories of family and spirited conversation around the dinner table. The metaphor of not letting one element overwhelm another actually came from an interview at a kringle shop—it seemed to fit the book’s message of finding balance perfectly. Am I a baker? I can hear my husband laughing in the background as I read this question. Alas, I have few culinary skills to speak of. While I’ve been known to bake kringles and a few pies on holidays, I’m much better at buying kringle than baking it. I wish it were otherwise!
4. Why did you choose to set the novel in the Midwest?
I’ve always wanted to write a novel about the Midwest. Wisconsin is where I was born and raised. It’s where my heart is. My family still lives there, in the Madison and Green Bay areas. Though I’ve now spent more time on the East Coast than in the Midwest, I’ll always feel like a Midwestern girl. I love the pace of life there, the kindness of the people, the undulating, wide open stretches of land, the ways in which life is tied to the seasons. As much as this book is a valentine to my four-year-old son, it is also a valentine to the Midwest.
5. Ellen, Lanie, and Rob are all such strong characters. Is there one you identified with more than the others?
It’s funny. The first character I had in mind when I began writing the novel was Ellen. I knew that I wanted to write about a baker at a certain place in her life. I also knew that she had a sister, but it wasn’t clear to me what Lanie’s occupation (and preoccupations) would be. I think it’s fair to say I identified with both Ellen and Lanie. I share Ellen’s fondness for good grammar and (I hope) her sense of humor; as for Lanie, she was probably an easier character to write in the end simply because I’d lived those early years with baby fairly recently. The sleep deprivation, the wonderful firsts, the fat cheeks and baby smell were still fresh in my mind. I enjoyed writing Rob’s character because I can only imagine what it must feel like to be on the other side of a relationship with a new, slightly obsessed, mom.
6. You go into great detail about the professions of Ellen, Lanie, and Rob. What kind of research did you do in writing this book?
I traveled to a kringle shop in Racine, Wisconsin, to make sure I had the details right about the baking process for such a large number of kringles. The folks at Bendtsen’s Bakery were tremendously helpful and generous with their time (they also happen to make the world’s most divine kringle, which is available online). As for Lanie’s job, I had some experience with the law as a paralegal and then as a short stint as a law student. I’ve always admired the power of the law to help people in dire situations. I hoped to convey that through Lanie’s work. Rob’s profession was more of a stretch, but I wanted something that would stand in contrast to Lanie’s profession— a job that was more precise with fewer gray areas.
7. Do you think about your future readers as you write? What do you hope they’ll take away from the novel?
Writing a novel was a bit of a foreign process to me, as I used to be a book editor, sitting on the other side of the desk. Whenever I stopped to think about who the book’s audience might actually be, it was like putting on literary handcuffs. Too many censors! I tried to write what was true to me. I suppose the reader I was most concerned about was my mom since she knows the Midwest like the back of her hand. A few things that I do hope readers will take away from this novel: a sense for the rhythms of a Midwestern life; a story that will remind them of someone in their own lives—whether a mother, a sister, or friend—who helped shape them; a reminder that no matter what life throws at you, you can always find three good things; and, last but not least, a new (or rekindled) love for the wonderful Danish pastry that is kringle.
8. What other authors do you admire? Were there any other books that you looked to as you wrote Three Good Things?
Boy, there are so many authors I love to read, this might be the toughest question of all. Elizabeth Strout, Charles Baxter, John Updike, Pat Conroy, Anita Shreve, and Garrison Keillor are all at the top of the list. But I also love good summer reads, often with a funny bent, for which I can thank Elin Hilderbrand, Nancy Thayer, Jennifer Weiner, Claire Cook, Emily Giffin, Barbara O’Neal, and Elinor Lipman, to name just a few. While I didn’t look to any particular books while writing, I was inspired by plenty of good grammar guides.
9. This is your first novel. How did you start writing?
My son was nearly a year and a half old. Life was beginning to return somewhat to normal, meaning I wasn’t constantly exhausted. I started writing at nights after he went to bed and then I’d catch some time when he’d take a rare nap. I had the character of Ellen, the notion of a book about sisters set in the Midwest, and the kringle theme kicking about in my brain for about a year before I actually began writing.
10. What is your writing process like? Where do your ideas come from?
I wrote the first draft fairly quickly (in about a year), but then there were many revisions after that. I need to get the words down or a scene written first, then I can go back and revise and tweak language. I won’t say that I always have the plot figured out because that would be a lie; to the contrary, the characters in this book often surprised me with the arcs that their narratives ultimately took. But I usually start with an idea for who the main characters will be and what the setting will be. Setting is very important to me, even as a reader. I like to know where I am, feel the air, see the land. It’s essentially another character in my mind. As for ideas, they come from any and all parts of a day. My family is very worried that they’ll one day see themselves in my pages. I’m also a good eavesdropper!
11. What are you currently working on? Any new projects in the works?
I’m currently working on my second novel, which is about a young mom who recently lost her husband in a car crash and the fallout that comes from that event. It’s an entirely different cast of characters and the novel is set in southern Florida. I’ve had to do a fair amount of research for the new book, so it’s been both challenging and rewarding to learn about things as various as acupuncture, marine biology, Floridian culture, crab migration patterns, and second-hand shops.