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This reading group guide forThe Other Familyincludes 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.
Richie Rossiter was a respected singer and songwriter when he died, leaving behind the woman he shared his life with and their three daughters. But he had never forgotten his first wife and their son. And in his will, he left matters in a way that not only compounded the shock of his death but also forced his two families to confront both each other and his true feelings about them all.
1. We meet Chrissie as she is grieving Richie’s death. Her first thoughts are about her ring, a physical sign that Richie and she were never married. Why does she cling to this thought? How does this frame the story and influence the reader’s initial view of Richie?
2. Richie and Chrissie have three daughters: Tamsin, Dilly, and Amy. Chrissie admits he was better than her at connecting with them. Does Chrissie seem like a good mother to her daughters throughout their struggle? In what ways does she change or improve as the story continues?
3. We never meet Richie, as the story begins after his death. How does this affect how the story is told? Would you have a more balanced view of him if he had been able to tell some of his personal history?
4. At one point Margaret thinks that life consists of getting used to a great many things that were a result of other people’s choices, rather than one’s own (page 22). What does this say about her view toward Richie and his other family?
5. Margaret and Scott appear to be apologetic when they attend the funeral. Why do they feel that way? Did they have the same right to be there as Chrissie’s family? Why or why not?
6. How did you react to the initial confrontation between the two families after the funeral? No one spoke, and they just looked at each other until Chrissie walked away. Is this what you would have expected to happen? Was there anything you thought should have been said?
7. Describe the different lives of the two families. Margaret viewed Chrissie as London posh, while she was a simple Northerner. How do these stereotypes influence how the families treat each other?
8. England is a major character in the story. How does the country and English propriety play a role in how the characters act?
9. Margaret wore her wedding ring for twenty-three years, well after Richie had left her. She told Scott she never thought Richie would return. Do you think that’s true? Why did she continue to wear the ring?
10. The lawyer Mark Leverton remembers having read that African tribesmen and millionaires were “about as happy as each other,” because they all had a sense of achievement and identity (page 54). Do you believe this to be true? What do you think that idea meant for Richie? For Margaret?
11. Was the inheritance split fairly? What do you think Richie was trying to say by giving his early songs and piano to his first family?
12. As she learned about her part of the inheritance, Margaret said she didn’t want anything; she just wanted to know Richie remembered her. Do you think Richie ever forgot his first family? Are there feelings he had for his first family he never had for his second?
13. How do you feel about the friendship that develops between Amy and Scott? Could the other girls ever have that type of friendship with Scott?
14. Why didn’t Margaret take Bernie Harrison’s initial offer to buy her agency? At sixty-six, it seems like she might start thinking about retirement. What kept her from giving in?
15. What do you think of Amy’s choice to move to Newcastle? Do you think she will be successful?
16. By the end of the story, how have the characters changed? Will Chrissie be okay on her own? Has Margaret found the happiness she was looking for?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Richie was a piano player and singer/songwriter. Head to a local karaoke bar or open mike night and sing some standards yourself. Or try hooking up a karaoke machine and belting out your own favorite tunes at home.
2. Enjoy a proper British tea with your discussion. Try Earl Grey or Yorkshire, as mentioned in the book. See which type you like best.
3. Have you ever been to England? Learn more about British culture by watching some classic BBC television or even traveling to Britain yourself.
4. Are your parents still together? Have they divorced or split up? Discuss your own experience dealing with your parents and their relationships.
A Conversation with Joanna Trollope
This novel was originally published in the United Kingdom. How do you think it will translate to an American audience?
I think this novel will have the advantage of being comfortingly familiar to U.S. readers in its depiction of grief, and family relationships and rivalries, and the huge complications thrown up by the consequences of a will—and interestingly unfamiliar, even slightly exotic, in its depiction of England and Englishness. For example, if I’m reading, say, a book by Sue Monk Kidd or Jane Smiley or Barbara Kingsolver (all of whom I much admire), it is a definite plus for me that, although a lot of emotions and reactions are familiar to me as being universally human, the Americanness, or Southernness, of the settings and turns of phrase and food and climate gives the novels an exciting novelty that makes me look at the human situations afresh. I would hope that that is what U.S. readers of The Other Family might feel.
Why did you choose to begin the story with a death and revolve everything around a character that we never get to meet?
Richie’s death itself is not crucial to the narrative or themes of the book. It is the consequences of that death that I wanted to examine, so I’m afraid the poor man had to go before we could meet him. . . . And I wanted, too, as happens in real life, to show his character emerging from the points of view of all the people who loved or had loved him. Everyone has reason (except, possibly, Tamsin and Dilly) to feel he has let them down, yet everyone was affected by his easy charm and affectionate nature. He is deliberately shown as a bit elusive because he was that sort of man—and we all know men like that!—and because he is frustratingly dead and can’t answer the questions so many of his family are burning to ask him.
It’s becoming more common for people to have multiple families as their lives progress. Did this story draw inspiration from any real situations?
Not really. All the family situations in my novels, like all the characters in my novels, are made up of a kind of patchwork of my observation of real situations and real people. So these are all amalgams of real characters, and family complexities, but they are not drawn from a single real life family or situation. I would be very uneasy about the morality of ever doing that in any case.
This isn’t your first book that deals with broken families and stepfamilies. What about this subject do you find so interesting? What kind of research did you do?
I’m afraid that unalloyed happiness and success in human relationships, while both may make for a lovely and commendable life, do not make for very page-turning fiction! We read, partly at least, to see knots untied and dilemmas resolved—the tension of a story is what makes it absorbing, as well as its recognizable human truth.
I also want to reflect contemporary life, which has, these days, a great many family complications in it, including broken marriages and stepfamilies. (I do feel bound to point out that the nineteenth century was rife with stepfamilies too, though those were the result of death in childbirth rather than divorce.) And as I believe that the family is where we learn most of our early life skills—how to communicate, manipulate, gain control, lose it, and so on—obviously the complexities of modern family life are of immense importance in how we develop as we grow up. The crucible of our development is very different from that of earlier generations . . . so how could I not be fascinated by it as a topic and believe it to be other than hugely important?
The research varies from book to book, but it always includes talking to people who have known, or are in, the situation I am concerned with—in this case, bereavement and living with what seems an unjust will. People are wonderfully generous about talking to me—maybe because I’m not a journalist? — and often seem almost relieved to express their feelings openly. And, of course, this novel involved trips to Newcastle, a lot of walking round Highgate in North London, and listening to the whole of the Tony Bennett songbook!
The children of the two women are conflicted in many ways—dealing with parents’ lives while trying to live their own. How do you create balance for your characters in these types of stories, which can resonate so widely?
I suppose that what I do is to try to inhabit the head of my characters as I am writing about them—not necessarily always sympathetically but more trying to make them as true to themselves as they would be were they really living, as I can. So I am “being” each person and also trying to give each one a fair hearing, so that the reader has a good chance of making up his or her own mind about each character. The balance just seems to happen now—as, maybe it certainly should, after thirty years of writing!
How do you see the story playing out? Do the lives of Chrissie and Margaret—along with the children—turn out successfully?
I always hope each reader will take the story on, in his or her imagination, after the book is finished. That’s one of the reasons that I never tie up the endings too tightly—I feel that the readers and I have been in this together all along, so I want to leave them a little dreaming to do at the end. Personally, I think Margaret was going to find considerable work satisfaction with Bernie’s agency (and even the possibility of a relationship with Bernie himself, though she had far too much sturdy Northern independence and good sense to fall for him romantically) and equal emotional satisfaction in a slow-burning but strong relationship with Amy. Chrissie wasn’t going to fare so well or so quickly—there was as much for her to unlearn as to learn. She probably had an affair with the landlord of her flat, and then a few more brushes with the wrong men, before realizing, perhaps, that she had the strength not to need validating that way and could live happily alone. But I wouldn’t want to preclude any ideas that readers have about what happened—and they may need to end these stories quite differently!
Which character did you have the strongest connection with?
Margaret and Amy.
The book revolves around music—Richie and Margaret’s careers, the Steinway and Amy’s flute. Are you a musician? What drew you to adding that to the story?
I wish I were a musician! I was drawn to it as a subject because it is plain that music is another language, a very powerful language, and one that can often say what words fail to. So, as a believer in the inimitable power of words, I wanted to look at this extraordinary, often supremely emotional, form of expression and see what bonds it could create and how it could often be even more articulate than words in creating bonds between people who find precise language difficult—as between Scott and Amy.
How has being a teacher affected your writing?
I wonder. . . . Maybe in the preparation—that is, the research—for the novels, and in the feeling of great connectedness that I have with readers, as I once had with pupils?
You’ve worked under a pseudonym before. Why at times do you decide to write under an assumed name? How does that affect your writing?
My contemporary novels are written as Joanna Trollope—which is what I was born—and the historical ones are as Caroline Harvey, a name I arrived at from putting my Trollope grandparents’ first names together. The two names are just to differentiate the two genres—no more complicated than that!
What projects are you working on now?
I’m afraid I’m not very good at talking about work in progress. I have a superstitious fear of the energy of the subject leaking away if I discuss it. But I am halfway through writing the next book, and know the subject matter of the one after that, so there is plenty coming. . . .
Joanna Trollope has been writing fiction for more than 30 years. Some of her best known works include Daughters-in-Law, TheOther Family, The Rector's Wife, A Village Affair, Other People'sChildren, and Marrying the Mistress. She was awarded the OBE in the 1996 Queen's Birthday Honors List for services to literature. She lives in England.