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This reading group guide forHappily Ever Afterincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Elizabeth Maxwell. 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.
Sadie Fuller is a fairly typical forty-six-year-old divorced mom—a little overweight, unlucky in love, and stuck in the suburbs with no shortage of responsibilities. But Sadie is not like the other soccer moms on her block: while her daughter is at school, Sadie writes erotic fiction, creating steamy fantasies starring beautiful, scantily clad characters who have exactly nothing to do with her real life. Then, an unexpected plot twist causes a break with reality, and Sadie finds herself face-to-face with what appears to be her latest romantic hero in the baby products aisle at the local Target. She has no idea how he got there—or how to get him safely back into the pages of her book. But she’s deter- mined to give him a “happily ever after,” and perhaps create one for herself this time, too.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Happily Ever After opens with the definition of the term “midlife crisis.” How does this set the tone for the story? How well do you think this definition applies to what Sadie goes through?
2. On page 41, Sadie is worried her relationship with Jason may be doomed if he’s not a reader. She declares, “A man who reads is profoundly sexy. A man who does not is just some guy.” Do you agree? What qualities or characteristics would you consider deal breakers?
3. Throughout the story, the dichotomy between city and country life often comes up. Sadie seems to have love/hate relationships with both settings, though she chose suburban life for her daughter’s sake. What is your preference? How does your experience of either the city or the country compare to Sadie’s?
4. Even though Lily and Aidan were products of Sadie’s imagination, they end up taking on lives of their own—in more ways than one! How do they turn out to be different than Sadie had intended? What do you think they end up teaching Sadie about herself by not following her plans?
5. At separate points in the story, Sadie and Jason both seem to readily accept the magical truth of what is actually happening as it’s presented to them. Were you surprised that they weren’t more incredulous? Would you have been so easily convinced?
6. Sadie takes on many different roles in life—roles that she’s often trying to keep distinctly separate from one another. Discuss the many titles she adopts and how successfully she juggles them.
7. For a while, both before she got pregnant and after her divorce, Sadie was tempted to give up on her happy ending. Have you ever felt ready to throw in the towel? Do you think Sadie ever really gave up?
8. Compare Sadie’s relationship with Jason to the types of relationships she writes about in her books. Does their story follow the rules of a good book—according to Ellen or according to you?
9. So many of the characters in this book are faced with heart- ache at one point or another. Discuss how they each seem to deal with it and what you think that says about them. How does heartache help bring any of them together or move the story along?
10. Happily Ever After features a witch, spells, and alternate realities. What effect does it have on your belief—or suspension of disbelief—in the story?
11. Sadie shows a lot of care for her characters when trying to break Clarissa’s spells. Why do you think she is willing to go through so much trouble and even endanger herself to try to save them? Would you have done the same?
12. On page 303, Sadie says, “sometimes I wonder if any of it really happened . . . But then I see Lily, and that line between reality and fantasy blurs.” What do you make of Lily’s decision to stay with Sadie? How would it have changed the story if she hadn’t stayed? Would you have believed it had all really happened? 13. Discuss the endings for each of the main characters. Do they all get a “happily ever after”? Do you wish it had ended differently for any of them?
A Conversation with Elizabeth Maxwell Congratulations on your first novel! Have you always wanted to be an author? What led you down this path?
Yes! But it always felt like a bit of a fantasy, the sort of thing you say when someone asks you what you want to be when you grow up. To make it real, I had to break it down into small chunks, sentence by sentence, page by page. I tried never to think about the endgame, as in, “What am I going to do with this story when I’m done?” because that’s paralyzing. “Focus on the writing” became my daily mantra.
What inspired the unique story of Happily Ever After? How did the plot and the characters evolve?
The story evolved a few different ways. First, I read about an erotic fiction author who lives in the southern United States and doesn’t tell anyone what she does for a living. I love the idea that things are seldom what they seem so this was right up my alley. I could not stop imagining the consequences of such a secret on a person’s day-to-day life.
Second, I was with my literary agent and we were talking about the movie Enchanted and how fun it is to mash genres together. That got me thinking of a framework for a story about a closet erotic fiction author who’s coming a little un-glued.
How do you compare with Sadie as a writer? Do you have similar habits, work ethics, rules?
Sadie is a genre writer and therefore has a greater appreciation of genre rules than I do. She knows if she’s writing erotica it better go a certain way or she’s going to hear about it from her fans. I think a lot less about the container my story needs to fit into and much more about what I want to tell. But we both take incredibly sloppy notes!
Aside from having the same occupation, do you relate to Sadie in any other ways?
It was incredibly satisfying to write about a fortysomething woman, which I am. It’s amazing how little play characters of this age get in fiction today. It’s almost as if women in fiction reach age thirty-five and simply vanish. It was also fun to juxtapose the very real trials of Sadie’s life and age with the fantasy elements of the novel. I wanted it to be fun but also look at how complicated love and relationships can be.
Although you currently live in California, you chose to set this novel in and around the New York City area. Have you ever lived in New York or spent significant time there? Why did you choose it for your setting?
I love New York! I grew up there and even though I’ve lived out west for almost fifteen years now, I will always be a New Yorker at heart. I knew immediately when I began to work on Happily that the suburbs surrounding New York City set the perfect tone for Sadie’s conflict.
Happily Ever After has elements of women’s fiction, erotica, and fantasy all wrapped up together. What was the most fun to write? What was the most challenging?
My hat is off to erotica writers and paranormal writers! It’s incredibly hard to do this well—you have to be mindful of not crossing the line that makes a reader abandon your book because it feels too ridiculous. I fell over that line many times, but thankfully there are editors and drafts (many, many of them)!
What are your favorite kinds of books to read for fun? Is there a particular author or book that inspired your writing style? Are there any other genres you’d still like to tackle?
I’ll read anything as long as it grabs me. Authors I love include Susan Isaacs, Stephen King, Janet Evanovich, Alexandra Fuller, Alice Hoffman, Kate Atkinson, Hilary Mantel, Curtis Sittenfeld, Diane Setterfield, Katherine Neville, and early Harlan Coben.
I’d love to write a murder mystery—I have a really great ending; it’s just the other three hundred pages I’m struggling with.
Do you have a favorite character? Did they always be- have as you intended or were you ever thrown for a loop by your own creations, just as Sadie was?
I’m a terrible outliner, so sometimes my characters take off in directions I never saw coming. On a good day, it works out and by the time I hit Save I understand why they did what they did. On a bad day, I end up deleting a full day’s work because none of it makes any sense. The hope is that there are ultimately more good days than bad.
You wrote on page 130, “Backstory is a funny thing. It can make its way to paper or stay tucked away in a writer’s head.” Did you have any other backstory developed for these characters that never made its way to paper?
Tons! There are so many bits and pieces that ultimately do not make it to the page because of story or space constraints or just a lack of relevancy. For instance, I know what Sadie likes for lunch, but there are more important details the reader needs to know about her when it comes to moving the story forward. And every detail has to count.
But I keep it all because I never know when I might revisit these characters or use some of their backstory details for another character in another novel. What message do you hope readers will take away from Happily Ever After?
The world is a strange and mysterious place. Magic is all around us in our everyday lives, it just depends on how you look at things.
Are you working on a new novel? Would you ever con- sider writing a sequel?
Yes and yes. Right now, I’m working on a novel; I’m again concerned with how things are not always as they appear. This work is a little bit darker, however, and there are no witches. As for sequels, every author wants to do a sequel because it means the original stirred something in readers, and that’s all I really want—for readers to walk away having enjoyed the ride.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Sadie has created a whole biography for K.T. Briggs. If you had to come up with a pen name, what would it be? What kind of bio would you write for your alter ego’s book cover? Take a stab at it!
2. Sadie’s fan Ellen certainly had her ideas about what made for a good romance novel. Do you have any rules for what you think is a good book? Maybe you’re a sucker for happy endings, or you love an unexpected plot twist. Try coming up with a few rules of your own and share them when you discuss Happily Ever After. Do they apply to this book?
3. According to Sadie, Roger’s yoga studio is always suffering for one reason or another. Find a local yoga studio to sup- port with your book club and make it a group trip!
4. Learn more about Elizabeth Maxwell, read her blog, and find out how to follow her on Twitter by visiting ElizabethMaxwell Author.com.