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This reading group guide for The Secret of Joy includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Melissa Senate. 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.
In Melissa Senate’s sweet and sentimental eighth novel, twenty-eight year-old Rebecca Strand is about to lose her father and be left alone in the world without a family. But her father makes a confession on his deathbed—that he had a secret affair twenty-six years ago and Rebecca has a half sister named Joy that neither she nor anyone else has ever known about. Shocked by her father’s infidelity and secrecy, Rebecca is determined to find her sister and make up for Daniel Strand’s abandonment of his second daughter. She leaves New York City, her job, and her boyfriend behind and heads to Maine to track down the only family she has left. But when Joy doesn’t exactly welcome her with open arms, Rebecca must look within herself to discover the meaning of the word sister, and to figure out what she wants out of life and where her future lies.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Is sharing the same DNA enough in and of itself to make someone family, or do words like family and sister hold meaning that goes much deeper than genetics?
2. Rebecca makes a lot of major decisions without really thinking about them—going to Maine, getting a dog, renting a house, giving up half her inheritance. Why do you think she is able to make these decisions so easily and confidently, even while acknowledging that she doesn’t really know what she’s doing?
3. Maggie suggests that Rebecca’s father told her about Joy to let her know that she’s not alone in the world, that she doesn’t have to marry Michael “just to have someone” (p. 121). Do you agree with that idea? Do you think Rebecca’s father was worried that she felt like she needed to marry Michael to keep from being alone?
4. Rebecca gives a lot of thought to faithfulness in relationships as she struggles to understand how her father could have cheated. Is her relationship with Theo really cheating? Does not being married make it any less wrong?
5. How do you feel about Marianne’s attitude toward her husband’s infidelity? She talks about the woman her husband had his second affair with, saying, “He was carrying on a sexual affair, and she thought she was having a love affair” (p. 211) Can you really differentiate between the two? Is one type of affair more forgivable than the other?
6. It seems clear to everyone but Ellie that Tim is a total jerk. Why do you think she clings to her marriage so strongly when it’s obvious that she’d be better off without him?
7. Why do you think Joy keeps the painting of her father hanging in her house when she seems so opposed to talking about him and acknowledging his role in her life?
8. Rebecca feels a lot of guilt and sympathy for her father’s abandonment of Pia and Joy, but she doesn’t seem to be very angry with Pia for getting involved with a married man. Were Pia and Daniel equally wrong in their situation, having both known all the details? Or is Daniel more at fault because he was the one who was already married?
9. Why do you think Daniel Strand never tried to contact Pia or Joy, even after his wife died? How do you feel about what Rebecca decides to do with her inheritance? Would you have done the same thing?
10. Is Michael being selfish in telling Rebecca that her inheritance is their future, their down payment on a home, their kids’ education? Do you think he is more concerned about securing his own future than he is about helping Rebecca make the right decision for herself?
11. Had Daniel told his wife about the affair when it happened, Rebecca’s life could have been completely different. Should she be at all grateful to her father for preserving her happy and stable childhood? What do you think would have been the right thing for him to do?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Marianne isn’t the only one famous for her whoopee pies—they’re a Maine tradition! Order some of these delicious desserts from Labadie’s Bakery in Maine at www.whoopiepies.com, or try making them yourself. Go to www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Whoopie-Pies-107615.
2. Do you have a sister? Or maybe a best friend who feels more like a sister? Bring a photo of the two of you to your book club and talk about how the word sister defines your relationship.
3. Joy’s singles tours were more than an opportunity to meet one’s match; they were also a great opportunity to see some of Maine’s beautiful attractions. Take advantage of your home state, too! Look up local attractions and consider hosting your book club somewhere outside the living room this time!
A Conversation with Melissa Senate
How did you come up with the idea for The Secret of Joy?
My own life provided the inspiration (truth is stranger than fiction). Out of the blue several years ago, I received an email with the subject header: I think you might be my half sister. Whoa. I’ve had no contact with my biological father or any member of his family since I was eight years old, but I’ve always known I had a half brother, who was born when I was seven. And now here the half brother was, making contact. You can imagine the soul-searching, the questions I asked myself: Who is this person to me? A total stranger or a family member? What does the word family mean, exactly? How do I feel about it all? I had so many questions and no answers. And that’s one of the gifts of being a novelist; I could pose that question on paper, create a fictional scenario (using real life as a basis), a fictional character, and have her help me find the answers. And to make things more interesting for myself, I flipped everything: a half sister instead of a half brother. And I made the main character the one who grew up with the mutual father—that was very revealing for me.
You’ve written about sisters before, but in different capacities. Do you have a sister of your own? How did your experience of growing up either with or without siblings shape your understanding of what it means to be and have a sister?
Sisterhood is such a powerful word, such a powerful concept. That shared upbringing, that shared female experience. I love exploring the ways in which sisters can be raised in the same home by the same parents, yet have such different experiences, be so different. I do indeed have a sister of my own, two years older, and though we haven’t lived in the same state since I was sixteen, I’ve always felt very close to her. In The Secret of Joy, there are two sisters with DNA and a father (barely, for one) in common, but nothing else to bind them together—no shared upbringing. How do they forge a relationship? Especially if one isn’t interested? There is so much to delve into!
In your own life, you moved from New York City to a small town in Maine for what you call a “quality of life experiment.” Was your move as impulsive as Rebecca’s? How did that move affect your life and inspire your writing?
It was as impulsive—and yet, not, at the same time. I have long-known that my gut instinct serves me well, and when it said to move from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where I’d lived for fourteen years, in the apartment of my dreams on the twenty-third floor with a balcony and a tiny-but-there view of the East River to a small town in Maine with one (unnecessary) traffic light, I listened, despite. Despite leaving my family, my friends, and my beloved New York City itself. What I needed was quiet—though I didn’t realize then that the quiet I sought was an internal thing, not an external thing. When I did move to Maine and got the external quiet, I could hear myself think and slowly realized that the peace and serenity I sought did not come from long stretches of grass and blue ocean and the lack of honking taxis and eight million people, but that peace is something you have to find within yourself, not from your surroundings, though your surroundings can certainly have a huge effect. Ah, life lessons. The good news: I love Maine. And I do appreciate the quiet! As for how the move affected my writing, I’ve discovered that all of my adventures, big and small, have found their way into my novels in ways even I can’t identify sometimes.
Are any aspects of The Secret of Joy at all autobiographical? Are any of your characters ever loosely based on friends or acquaintances?
See question number one! Interestingly, though I love to borrow from my own life for the premise of my novels, I never, ever base, loosely or otherwise, my characters on anyone in my life.
I am nothing like Joy Jayhawk, for example. Or Rebecca. I do like to take situations from my own life and turn them around to explore them in fiction, though. I’ve done that in every book. A serial dater in NYC—check. A single woman who gets pregnant two months into a new relationship—check. A wedding that isn’t quite what you envisioned—check. A half sibling who “knocks” on your door one day out of the clear blue sky—check!
What are some of your favorite places in Maine? Have you ever been to Wiscasset?
The sign welcoming you to Wiscasset announces that it’s “The prettiest village in Maine.” I was so charmed by that and had to see for myself if it was true. And it is! The drive into Wiscasset is all part of the pretty—blueberry stands dot the countryside, and there are beautiful old farms and grazing horses. And the town is picture-postcard lovely. Many of Maine’s towns are so pretty and charming, but also bustling at the same time. I particularly love Camden and Kennebunkport. And my own town is pretty cute, too.
How did you come up with the idea for Joy’s singles tours?
I saw a glossy advertisement for a pricey singles bus tour of California’s wine country, and I wondered what happens when that bus leaves the station: Are singles checking each other out? What if you’re not attracted to anyone—do you want your money back? Or is it about the adventure? What if two singlesare vying for the same person? What if, what if, what if? But I immediately envisioned that weird little yellow minibus from Little Miss Sunshine, not a real bus with air-conditioning and a bathroom, and that strange little minibus began informing the kind of people who’d be on the tours—people on the quirky side. Seeking not so much romance, but acceptance, connection. It’s so interesting how ideas take root.
Many of the characters in this novel experience heartbreak at one point or another. What was your motivation for creating so many troubled relationships?
I didn’t do it consciously! I think I wanted to explore what the word family means to many different kinds of people in different stages. Including . . . myself.
Rebecca is pretty confident all along that she and Joy really are sisters. As you were writing, did you ever waiver on your decision of what the blood tests would say? Do you usually know how a story is going to end when you start writing it?
I always write to a last sentence, actually. Does that sound strange? I always knew what I wanted for Joy and Rebecca at the end, and I wrote to that ending. I wasn’t sure exactly what would lead them there, the twists and turns, the ups and downs; the characters take over to tell their own stories. But I knew before I wrote a word that these two women were sisters, in every sense of the word.
How did your work in publishing help prepare you for life as a writer? Is it helpful having been on the other side of the book business?
You know, it’s hard to answer that question, because I don’t know what it’s like to be an author who wasn’t an editor first, who wasn’t working in the New York City publishing world. I started out in publishing as a twenty-two-year-old editorial assistant at a fiction house and left as a thirty-four-year-old senior editor. I feel like I grew up in the editorial world. The one thing I am sure of about publishing is this: it’s a business. It’s vital to remember that and probably the one thing that has been the most helpful to me these past ten years that I’ve been a full-time writer. But just as vital to remember is the fact that the creation of books, from the author who writes to the publishing house who produces, is a labor of love for everyone involved.
What’s up next for you?
I am hard at work on my next women’s fiction novel for Downtown Press. It’s set in an Italian cooking class and involves the tiniest bit of magic and a lot of romance. My working title is The Love Goddess’s Cooking School and it will be published in 2010. I’m also very excited that in May 2010, my second novel for teens, The Mosts, will be published. Though set in the high school world (and mostly on a farm in Maine!), I explore my favorite themes: acceptance, family, relationships, and self discovery.
Melissa Senate is the author of eight novels, including the bestselling See Jane Date, which was made into an ABC Family TV movie and has sold over 200,000 copies worldwide. She's published short pieces in Everything I've Always Wanted to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume, It's a Wonderful Lie, Flirting with Pride and Prejudice, and American Girls About Town. A former romance and young adult editor from New York, she now lives on the southern coast of Maine with her son.