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This reading group guide for The Last Chance Matinee includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Mariah Stewart. 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.
When celebrated and respected agent Fritz Hudson passes away, he leaves a trail of Hollywood glory in his wake—and two separate families who never knew the other existed. There’s Allie and Des Hudson—sisters who are products of Fritz’s first marriage to Honora, a beautiful but troubled starlet. Then there’s Cara, Fritz’s daughter with New Age hippie Susa. While Fritz loved Susa and Cara, he never quite managed to tell them about his West Coast family.
Now Fritz is gone, and the three sisters meet all together for the first time. As if that shock isn’t enough, there are the strange stipulations surrounding their inheritance. Each sister stands to gain a large share—but only if they work together to restore a decrepit theater that was Fritz’s obsession growing up in his small hometown of Hidden Falls.
As the sisters reluctantly set out to fulfill their father’s dying wish, they find not only themselves but the father they only thought they knew.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the book’s title. Why do you think Mariah Stewart chose it? Whose last chance is it? Explain your answer.
2. When Darla asks Cara what she hopes to find by going to Hidden Falls, Cara answers “My dad. I want to find out who my father really was, because he obviously wasn’t the man I thought I knew.” (page 53) What does Cara learn about her father? Does Cara have other motivations for complying with her father’s will and visiting Hidden Falls? If so, what are they? Discuss her motivations along with those of Allie and Des.
3. Allie calls Hidden Falls “strictly Small Town USA.” (page 169) Describe Hidden Falls. Do you agree with Allie or do you, like Cara, find Hidden Falls charming? Could you make a place like Hidden Falls your home? What did you like about it?
4. What was your initial impression of Barney? She is beloved by the residents of Hidden Falls—why do they hold her in such high esteem? Do you think their admiration is warranted?
5. When Nikki asks if the family’s theater will be used once the restoration is complete, Allie tells her, “[Y]our grandfather’s will only called for us to renovate it. Nothing else. Nobody’s talking about using it for anything.” (page 269) Why is Allie reluctant to commit to using the restored theater in any way? Compare her attitude about the theater with that of the rest of her family. What would you do if you were in Allie’s position?
6. Do you think Honora was a good mother to Allie and Des? Explain your answer. Compare Honora’s parenting style with Susa’s.
7. Why is Allie nervous about Nikki’s visit? Given Allie’s fears, did Nikki behave as you expected? What do you think of her? Were you surprised by Nikki’s enthusiasm for the restoration project? Why, or why not?
8. Of the theater restoration, Nikki says, “This is so seriously cool. I can’t believe I have the chance to do something important like this.” (page 276) Do you agree with Nikki that restoring the Sugarhouse is important? What role has the theater played in the community? Are there any historic buildings in your hometown that have similar importance?
9. Early on in the novel, the reader learns that Cara’s husband, Drew, has left Cara for one of her best friends. Given what you learn about Cara’s marriage, were you surprised by her ex-husband’s actions? Do you think that Cara and Drew were well suited for each other? Why, or why not?
10. Initially, Joe “always managed to get [Cara’s] back up.” (page 132) Why does Cara react to Joe with trepidation? Is she justified in doing so? Ultimately, Cara changes her mind about Joe. What causes this? Describe their working relationship. Do you think that Joe is a good construction manager? Would you hire him if you were working on a project?
11. When Allie chastises Nikki because she’s “starting to sound like [her] Aunt Des,” Nikki responds by telling her, “I’m going to take that as a compliment.” (page 324) Describe Allie’s relationship with Des. Why does she see “sounding like Des” as worthy of disdain? Do you? Which of Des’s traits does Nikki admire? What do you think of Des?
12. Were you surprised by Cara’s discovery in the carriage house? How does it help her understand more about Fritz’s character? Does it lead to more questions about Fritz for you? If so, what were they?
13. As Cara watches her family at the Hidden Falls Gun Club, she “felt a little tug at her heart. . . . Who would have guessed how much richer her life would be after less than a month in Hidden Falls.” (page 374) How has Cara’s life changed by her time spent in Hidden Falls? Compare Cara’s mental state at the end of The Last Chance Matinee with that as the book begins. What might account for her new strength and peace of mind?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. As Allie, Des, and Cara discuss their father, Allie reveals that one of her favorite memories was the birthday trip to New York City that she took with their father and tells that she “stayed for an entire week in a big suite at the Plaza because I loved Eloise when I was younger.” (page 138) Are there characters from books that you read in your childhood that you loved as much as Allie loved Eloise? Discuss your favorite children’s books and characters with your book club.
2. In preparation for bluegrass night at the Hidden Falls Gun Club, the Hudson sisters listen to bluegrass music with Barney, who describes it as “sort of like country, maybe what some would consider hillbilly style.” (page 366) Listen to bluegrass music with your book club. Do you like it? Or do you find the music “different,” as Cara does? Discuss your reaction to the music. If you’re already a lover of bluegrass music, share some of your favorite songs with your book club.
3. Cara grew up in Devlin’s Light, the setting for Mariah Stewart’s wildly popular Enright series. Read one of the books in this series (Devlin’s Light, Wonderful You, Moon Dance) with your book club and discuss it. What do you think of Devlin’s Light based on Cara’s descriptions of it in The Last Chance Matinee? Were you surprised by anything?
4. Practicing yoga and teaching it to others provides Cara with a sense of calm and she “loved that she could teach others how to obtain that same sense of peace and well-being.” (page 4) Try yoga with your book club. Are you able to focus and find a sense of inner peace? Talk about your experiences with your book club.
5. Make Susa’s granola recipe for your book club!
5 cups organic rolled oats
1 cup each of:
brown rice flour
coconut oil (heated to liquefy)
1 cup honey
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon vanilla
Mix all the dry ingredients together in a very large bowl.
Mix the honey and melted coconut oil together, then add to the dry mix.
Stir until evenly dispersed.
Spread onto two large jelly roll pans (17” x 11” or 19” x 12”).
Bake at 275°F for 20 minutes.
Let cool on the tray for about 15 minutes, then scrape granola off the trays with a spatula and store in an air-tight container. (The granola will be chunky.)
A Conversation with Mariah Stewart
You’ve written more than forty books throughout your career. How did the writing and publication process for The Last Chance Matinee compare?
I don’t plot things out before I start writing, so the process is always one of discovery—the characters reveal themselves and from there the story settles around them. The first hundred pages are always agonizing, because while I know the basic story, I’m not sure how it’s going to play out; I’m still getting to know the characters and hearing their voices. If I can make it through those first hundred pages, I’m probably going to make it to the end of the book. That being said, this book was a little different for me because I had more of a clear understanding of where I was going right from the start.
On your website, you write that The Last Chance Matinee is loosely based on something that happened in your family. How much of your family’s story influenced the story of the Hudson sisters? Did your family have any objections to you using your own history as source material?
When my mother was in her mid-forties, she discovered that her father had had another family in another state, and that the person she thought was her cousin was actually her half brother. He’d been adopted as a toddler by my great-aunt Bess, my grandfather’s sister, and she and her husband raised him as their own son. He died not knowing that the man he called “uncle” was actually his father. After the “cousin” passed away, my mother received a letter from his widow, who laid out the truth. My mother also discovered that she had a half sister, and that another half sister had died shortly after being born along with the child’s mother. Since the story I wrote is far from the truth of what actually happened, I didn’t expect anyone to object. My mother and her siblings have all passed away, but I think my mother might have been amused by my version.
Many of your novels have been New York Times and USA Today bestsellers, and you’ve been the recipient of many awards, including the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award. Given the success of your earlier books, did you feel any added pressure when writing The Last Chance Matinee? If so, how did you deal with it?
There’s always pressure when I start a new book. I can’t say that writing this book was any more stressful than any other! A lot of whining and angst goes into writing every book, because it’s never easy. There’s always a moment when I ask myself why I thought this story was a good idea. The only thing you can do to get past that is to keep writing.
As an award-winning novelist, do you have any advice for aspiring writers? Is there anything that you wish you had been told at the start of your writing career?
Read. Read often. Read everything. Read thrillers and romances and literary works, fiction and nonfiction.
And write. Write every day, even when you think what you’re writing is dreck. There’s a great quote from Nora Roberts that goes something like, “You can fix a bad page, but you can’t fix a blank one.”
I wish I’d known that this is never easy, regardless of where you are in your career. Writing a book is hard work. Yes, sometimes the words come easily and the writing flows, but don’t be fooled. Sooner or later—usually just when you start thinking, Hey, this book could write itself—you’ll round the corner and come to a screeching halt, and you will have no idea where you’re going. You just have to keep banging away at it until it comes out right.
The Last Chance Matinee marks the beginning of a new series for you. Can you tell us a little about your writing process? How do you decide which story lines to leave unfinished so that you can address them in future novels within the series? Do you know how the entire series will conclude?
My writing process is always the same: I sit in front of my computer every morning and hope my characters are speaking to me that day!
Every series is different, and sometimes the story arcs overlap more than in others. The most difficult part of writing this series was deciding how much of the story to give the reader in this first book and how much to hold back. Because I have three lead characters, each having their own book, the first thing I had to decide was whose story to reveal first. Each of these women are in different stages of their lives, and they each have issues to deal with. Some will be resolved earlier than others. It’s a balancing act, and I don’t mind saying that my editor has been very helpful. She has a really good feel for such things!
There are so many threads that cross each other in these books, from the first to the last— from Cara’s search to find out who her father really was, to Des’s commitment issues, to Allie’s alcoholism—but I can say I do know how the series concludes!
Have you found anything particularly rewarding about publishing The Last Chance Matinee? If so, what?
The most rewarding thing about publishing any book is connecting with the readers. This book is no different in that regard. I did enjoy putting a different spin on the story my mother was told, imagining how it might have all played out, and I came to love all five of the women—from Nikki, who turned out to be the total opposite of what I expected, to the three sisters, to Barney, who is a great character herself. And yes, I do see a bit of my great-aunt Bess in her.
You describe the community of Hidden Falls so vividly. How did you come up with it? Is it based on a real place? If so, can you tell us more about it?
Hidden Falls is a product of my imagination. The town developed in my head around the story. I knew it had to have the theater, of course, and a few restaurants, and the usual police department, pharmacy, that sort of thing. It needed to be small, and it needed to be one of those Poconos towns that never fed into the tourist thing. So I had the Hudson family carefully control how the town developed over the years so that it could stay small and maintain its character and rich history.
I should add, my mother’s brother and his family lived on one of the mountains, and we visited at least once every year when I was growing up. I remember how the roads twisted and turned, and I remember seeing the gouges in the earth left from strip-mining the coal. But I also remember the beauty of the mountains and the ponds and lakes and forests around my uncle’s home. If you’re from the area and are familiar with Cummings Pond (we called it “the lake” back then), you’ll recognize it in Compton Lake. It’s the only thing in the book that I took from memory.
Your descriptions of the Sugarhouse Theater really bring it to life. What kind of research did you conduct in order to get all the Art Deco details correct?
For many years we lived in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, a small town outside of Philadelphia, where a 1927 theater is being restored. I’d been inside it several times and remember how my jaw dropped the first time I looked up at the magnificent ceiling. I borrowed elements of this lovely building for the Sugarhouse. If you’ve seen the movie Silver Linings Playbook, you saw the outside of the theater in the scene where Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are running down the middle of a street—they run past the Lansdowne Theater and stop in front of it and argue (the memorable “He’s harassing me!” scene). You’ll find pictures of the interior of the Lansdowne Theater here: www.lansdownetheater.org and www.abandonedamerica.us/historic-lansdowne-theater.
I also studied the restoration process of other historic theaters in different parts of the country.
What would you like your readers to take away from The Last Chance Matinee?
That sometimes life tosses you a curve, and it’s how you react to the circumstances that determines the way your life—your journey—plays out. That, in the end, it all comes down to the relationships you have with the people who mean the most to you. That family is where you find it. That sometimes we have to take that unexpected step to end up where we’re supposed to be, or as Cara imagined her mother, Susa, saying, “[G]reet each new day as an opportunity to bring fresh joy into your life. Look beyond today to the future and trust the universe to bring you what you truly need.” (page 5)
Fritz left his daughters a great deal of money, but it came with strings attached. For all his shortcomings as a father, he knew the only way these women would get to really know each other would be by living together and working toward a common goal, and becoming part of each other’s journey. By agreeing to go somewhere they didn’t want to be, with people they didn’t want to be with, in the end, they each found something they didn’t know they were looking for, and all their lives were so much richer for the experience.
Are you working on anything else now? Can you tell us about it?
Right now, I’m working on The Good-bye Café, which is the second book in the series. This is Des’s book, and follows her journey in Hidden Falls and the choices she has to make along the way to establish a relationship with her sisters, her aunt, and the town. In the process, one of the things Des learns is that sometimes the last thing you want just might be the thing you need most (with apologies to the Rolling Stones).
Mariah Stewart is the award-winning New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of numerous novels and several novellas and short stories. A native of Hightstown, New Jersey, she lives with her husband and two rambunctious rescue dogs amid the rolling hills of Chester County, Pennsylvania, where she savors country life and tends her gardens while she works on her next novel. Visit her website at MariahStewart.com, like her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AuthorMariahStewart, and follow her on Instagram @Mariah_Stewart_Books.