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This reading group guide for Nancy’s Theory of Styleincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Marta Acosta. 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.
Nancy Edith Carrington-Chambers is a young socialite who appears to have it all: the perfect husband, whom she married in the perfect wedding; the perfect friends; the perfect connections; and she’s building the perfect house. But appearances can be deceiving, and Nancy’s perfect world comes apart when she leaves her husband to focus on her party-planning business, and doing a favor for her cousin turns into having custody of a four-year-old. Plus she finds herself falling in love with her gay assistant. Nancy has her rules about how to speak, how to act, how to dress, and how to behave. But those rules might just go out the window as she learns how to really live.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. “’We should always live an authentic life,’ she said… even though Nancy believed most people should run screaming from their authentic selves.” (ms pg 11) This quote seems to sum up Nancy’s approach to life at the beginning of the novel. How does this change as she matures?
2. Nancy plays with language, making up words like “thrillified” and “delightmare,” and substituting unrelated words or expressions for the ones she means (parakeet for budget, ms pg 17; parabolic trooper for catatonic stupor, ms pg. 51). Did you find it witty or silly? Intelligent or confusing?
3. “Although Nancy hadn’t known him, Leo’s death changed everything for her, like a click of the optometrist’s lenses that brings everything into sharp focus.” (ms pg 23) Why do you think Leo’s death affects Nancy so strongly? Are there other moments in the novel where one action or occurrence is more significant than it originally seems? Has this ever happened in your own life?
4. When did you begin to suspect that the people in Nancy’s life (and their intentions) might not be what they seemed? Were there clues the author planted that you caught on to before Nancy did?
5. Early in the novel, Nancy expresses the opinion that children leave their mothers “as flat and dull as a chalkboard.” (ms pg. 100) But by the end of the novel, she’s willing to fight to become a mother. What other shifts do you see in her and her point of view?
6. Nancy likes to project an image of being tough, but we discover that she actually is much kinder than she lets on: expressing disdain for children but bringing presents for Sloane’s sons each time she sees them, seeming to judge GP superficially but actually helping him to fit in and make friends. Why do you think she hides behinds this façade?
7. Miss Winkles refuse to call Nancy anything except Girl Carrington. Nancy’s family calls her Nanny or Nanny Girl, although she finds these nicknames childish. Even after Nancy and Derek begin their affair, he continues to call her Mrs. Carrington-Chambers. Do these nicknames signify something about how each character perceives Nancy?
8. Two themes in the novel are appearances versus reality and style versus substance. In what ways are the people and happenings in Nancy’s Guide to Style very different from how they appear?
9. Nancy likes to think of herself as worldly, but we see that in some ways she can be quite naïve. In what other ways do we see Nancy differently than she sees herself?
10. Nancy is constantly dictating the rules she lives by, and expects others to as well. Do you think these rules help to maintain order, or do they create unnecessary barriers between her and the people in her life?
11. In Nancy’s Guide to Style, there are various family arrangements that could be considered nontraditional. Nancy creates a family with Derek and Eugenia. Sloane is raising her boys by herself. What does this say to you about the nature of family?
12. Nancy says, “Those who don’t believe I’m a slut think that I’m a priss. I don’t know which is worse.” Do you think it’s typical for women to be faced with such stereotypes? Who tends to judge women’s sexuality more harshly, men or women?
13. Miss Winkles tells Nancy, “It’s the imperfections that make life interesting.” (ms. Pg 407) Do you agree with this statement?
14. “Eugenia was a problem. She was willful and impetuous and mischievous and very vocal and exasperating, which is exactly how she should have been.” (ms pg. 430) “She had thought that if she was careful and precise, if she planned everything, she would have a perfect life. But true style was messy, passionate and often impulsive.” (ms pg 446) What do you think caused Nancy to come to embrace this unpredictability? Was there a major turning point, or was it a gradual process?
A Conversation with Marta Acosta
1. This novel is your first outside the Casa Dracula series, in which the main characters are vampires. Why did you decide to do something different with Nancy’s Guide to Style?
I tend to resist categorization as a writer, because I enjoy writing everything from feature articles to satire to more somber fiction. I consider both the Casa Dracula series and Nancy’s Theory of Style to be contemporary fiction with a strong humorous element. Much of the humor depends upon the protagonists’ self-delusions and misunderstandings, and there are also those who purposely mislead the protagonists. We may guess the destination, but the fun is in the twists and turns on the journey.
2. How would you describe your own personal style?
As a general rule, I like things that are uncomplicated, and I also like vintage style. While my preference is for less froofra, I can certainly appreciate extravagance. I prefer saturated color over pastels; I like pretty, but not cute; elegant, but not ostentatious; simple, but not boring. However, I do not suffer from the burden of perfect taste.
3. What gave you the idea to incorporate two seemingly very different things: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and women’s fiction?
I thought that Nancy’s husband, Todd, would certainly be one of those MBAs who quotes Sun Tzu, as if his own privileged existence is as brutal as warfare. I began reading from The Art of War because I wanted quotations, and I was surprised at how relevant it still is.
When we live with someone, we learn things we wouldn’t have otherwise, and Nancy would have picked up these Sun Tzu’s lessons just by talking to her husband. When she finds herself in adversarial situations, she naturally goes to a master tactician for advice.
4. The novel has great details about architecture, design, fashion, and history. Can you tell us about the research you did?
My interests are eclectic, and I pick up information everywhere – whether it’s visiting a beautiful building, listening to an informed friend, reading a magazine, or going to a costume exhibit at a museum. I’m as likely to a documentary about architect Maya Lin as I am about designer Karl Lagerfeld, or prostitution during California’s Gold Rush.
I’d always been fascinated by tidbits of history about the Barbary Coast, and I’d bought my husband a copy of Herbert Asbury’s TheBarbary Coast. I had read chapters now and again, and I referred to it and to online essays for information about this vicious, violent part of local history.
I listen to every word that Tim Gunn says on his many design shows. I wish I was wise enough to follow all his advice.
5. What do you consider to be your own runway music?
I could never pick one favorite song. I’ll say any song with ‘California’ in the title: Mamas & Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Dani California,” Dead Kennedys’ “California Uber Alles,” Phantom Planet’s “California,” the Kooks’ “California”…
6. You live in San Francisco, where Nancy’s Guide to Style takes place. Are there any places or notable people in the novel that were based on real life? If a reader were to visit your city, what places would you consider “musts” for them to visit?
I lived in SF for many years, but now I live across the bay. Every morning I go to the shoreline and enjoy the view across the water to the city. The locations in Nancy’s Theory of Style are real for the most part, and any visitor to Fillmore Street in PacificHeights would see the shops that Nancy mentions.
As for the people, one of the delightful things about San Francisco is that it is geographically small city; it’s sophisticated and yet you can meet lots of people in your neighborhood or at your hang-outs. There are well-known local characters, and it’s always a treat to spot them going about their everyday lives. We all have “I saw [blank] at the hardware store!” stories. Some of these people are famous for a reason, but some are just quirky, and San Francisco loves quirky.
I couldn’t possibly list all my favorite things about San Francisco, but here are a few. Best views: the glass elevator at the St.FrancisHotel, the ferry boat to Sausalito, and the views from the California St. cable car.
Classic San Francisco: a second-floor window seat at Vesuvio Cafe in North Beach, buying music on Haight St., checking out the vintage and arty shops in the Mission, having a drink at one of the funky waterfront bars, taking a walk on Ocean Beach, visiting Golden Gate Park, and going to a performance, whether it’s the opera or seeing a band.
7. Birdie gave birth to Eugenia but has very little maternal instinct, while Nancy didn’t intend to have children but took to mothering quickly. Do you think some women are naturally more suited to motherhood?
Yes. Some women know absolutely that they want to have children. I was one of them and there was never any question in my mind. I admire women who realize that they don’t have that mothering instinct and take care not to have children. However, I think that Nancy is more of a fabulous and wacky aunt than a mother. She’s caring and loving, but has a slightly different role.
8. There are a lot of funny moments in the novel, but it also deals with very real issues such as alcoholism, and people struggling to find their true paths. Is there a message you hope readers will take away?
The message with this novel is fairly simple: Nancy thinks that if she can control everything, she will be happy. I think a lot of people put off enjoying the here and now because they’ve got an unrealistic idea of what life should be and who their spouse should be. Nancy soaks in her tub and believes that perfection is both possible and desirable.
Her need to control is the direct result of her parents’ problems. Children of alcoholics often need to bring order to otherwise chaotic lives. Her own experience with negligent parents makes her especially sympathetic to her niece’s situation.
9. Who are your favorite authors? Who would you consider your inspiration?
I know it’s cliché to say Jane Austen, but she’s one of my favorites. I love the sense of decency in her novels. Of course, I also love the clever banter, the well-structured plots, and the emotional depth of her characters. It’s not the fashion to admire books with a moral clarity, but I find them emotionally reassuring in an unstable world.
Mark Twain has always been a favorite. I respond to his dazzling absurdity, but I also love his intelligence and the darkness and cynicism in much of his work. He was a modern thinker often confounded by a foolish world.
I’ve read an awful lot of Henry James and admire the complexity of his characters. No one is simply good or evil; they are motivated by emotional, financial, sexual, and social desires.
P.G. Wodehouse has been an inspiration, because I so enjoy his deliciously extravagant characters and outlandish dialogue. There’s such joy in his writing.
10. What can we expect to see from you next? Are you working on another paranormal novel? Something more like Nancy’s Guide to Style? Or something completely different?
The fourth in my Casa Dracula series will be released soon, and I’m also working on another contemporary novel set in San Francisco. I’ve also written a young adult gothic novel set in an elite all-girls academy.
Tips to Enhance Your Book Club
1. Nancy keeps a guide that defines her own personal style. Talk about your own style and its defining characteristics with your book club.
2. Nancy suggests that everyone should have his or her own runway song, “a song we can imagine when we’re walking down the street and the wind is blowing back our hair because life is the ultimate runway.” (ms pg 297) Have each member of your club pick their own runway song and bring a recording to play for the group.
3. Nancy lists the movies she considers to be the great fashion movies. Have a book club movie night and watch one of the films. You can also look at the costumes online on a movie site such as www.IMDB.com.
4. Get a copy of The Art of War, and flag some of your favorite quotes to share with the group. Do you think the tenets can be applied to everyday life?
Marta Acosta received a degree in English literature and creative writing from Stanford University. She is a regular contributor to The San Francisco Chronicle and the Contra Costa Newspapers. Her debut novel, Happy Hour at Casa Dracula, was a Book Sense Pick.