Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Sins of the Mother includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Tara Hyland. 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.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Compare and contrast Cara and Franny. In what ways are they different, and in what others are they similar?
2. What is this novel saying about second chances? Which characters get them, and what do they do with them?
3. As the title suggests, Sins of the Mother is very much about the failures of maternal figures. Consider the many women who act as mother figures for Cara. To what extent are they successful or disappointing role models for her?
4. Two pregnancies—both to young, unmarried women—drive much of the narrative’s action. Discuss how these pregnancies are handled by the adults in these young girls’ lives, and the impact of their actions. What role does shame play here, and in your opinion, who—if anyone—is guilty, in these scenarios?
5. Where does friendship fit in to this novel? Can it ever compensate for the absence of family?
6. Both Franny and Cara want to pursue a career. What reasons do they give for wanting this, and what paths do they take to reach this goal? Discuss the employment
opportunities that are available to women throughout Sins of the Mother.
7. Consider the male characters in Sins of the Mother. How are they depicted? Are any of them redeemable?
8. While in Hollywood, Franny reasons: “When it came down to it, she loved being an actress. While she might like the trappings of success—the apartment and the car, the furs and the jewelry—they weren’t why she stayed in Hollywood. She stayed because she still got a flutter in her stomach every time she stepped onto a film set. And not only did she love acting, she was good at it, too. For the first time in her life, she had respect, and she didn’t want to give that up.” What did you think of Franny’s decision to stay in Hollywood without her daughter? Did it seem like a conscious choice, or something that simply evolved? Could you empathize with her?
9. Discuss the depiction of power in the novel. Who has power, and how do they exert it? Are positions of power fixed, or do they shift over the course of the narrative?
10. Max says to Cara, “You seemed happy, so your mother decided to leave you. She felt that she’d done enough damage and didn’t want to disturb your peace.” What did you think of Franny’s decision to not contact Cara once she was again living with the Connolly family in London?
11. Franny remarks on the remoteness of Stanhope Castle to Max, to which he replies, “If the tide comes in, it will always go out again. It’s just a question of waiting.” To what extent is this presented as a truth of the narrative in general?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Pick a 1950s Hollywood actress to read a biography of, and then watch one of the films that the star you picked appeared in. Some possible selections might include Vivien Leigh, Ava Gardner, or Lana Turner.
2. If you haven’t yet read Daughters of Fortune, Tara Hyland’s first novel, consider reading it as a group. Discuss how the theme of family secrets—and the ways in which they are bound to resurface—are present in each novel.
3. Stanhope Castle is reminiscent of Hearst Castle. As a group, learn more about William Randolph Hearst, and examine the parallels between him and Max Stanhope. You might also look at photographs of the famous estate, and imagine Franny living there.
A Conversation with Tara Hyland
What was the inspiration behind Sins of the Mother? What kind of research did you need to do for this novel?
The original inspiration came from thinking back to Virginia Andrews’ gothic sagas, which I read as a teenager. I had this one-line idea, to write a story about a mother who abandons her daughter, and it went from there. In terms of research, I tend to read a lot around the period that I’m writing about—whether it was William J Mann’s biography of Elizabeth Taylor for the Hollywood part of the story, to Frances Reilly’s Suffer the Little Children, to get an account of a convent upbringing
How did the writing process of Sins of the Mother differ from Daughters of Fortune? Did you find one easier or harder to write?
Originally I thought Sins of the Mother would be easier to write, as there were only two main characters, while Daughters of Fortune had three. But I think I underestimated other challenges! With my second book, I chose to set my story in a period of rapid social change—the 1940s to the 1970s—so that required a great deal of research. Also, there is a big mystery in the book, and integrating that was more difficult than I anticipated.
Both of your books cover such large geographic and temporal distances. How do you plot out your novels?
I plot in a very linear way. I come up with the initial idea, and write a one-page synopsis, and then I just start building up from there—splitting the action into chapters and starting to add scenes. I usually end up with a thirty-page synopsis by the end, and I work off that.
There’s a very surprising twist at the end of the narrative! Did you have this mystery in mind from the very beginning, or did it arise later in the writing process for you?
Yes, I’d thought up the entire mystery before I started writing. Some of the details changed in the editing process, but the major twist was always there.
Why did you choose to set your novel in the 1950s and 1960s? What drew you to writing about this time period?
I’d already written a very modern novel, and I felt that I’d said all I needed to about the modern day! I also liked the idea of setting my story in the past, as the mystery and drama seemed to suit a more historical setting. I also really wanted to write about the Golden Age of Hollywood, as I think part of my story is very film noir.
Many readers may not be familiar with the influence of Irish gangs on London’s street culture during the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. Can you provide a bit of background for us?
The Irish gang in my novel is based loosely on the Krays and the Richardsons, who were operating in London during that period. From their impoverished beginnings, they become West End nightclub owners in the 1960s, mixing with performers and movie stars, and ended up as celebrities in their own right. I wanted to capture the idea of the violence and the glamour in my novel.
The Catholic orphanage where Cara is placed treats her cruelly, but the one Sophie grows up in seems quite nurturing. What were you trying to suggest with this parallel?
My point was that how an institution is run is down to the individuals in charge. Obviously there are many harrowing accounts of how children were treated in Church-run institutions in the past, but it isn’t fair to tar everyone with the same brush.
Which character’s voice came the most naturally to you? Which required the most crafting?
Cara was the easiest to write. She’s the innocent in the novel and, despite going off the rails a little, she’s essentially a good person. Franny was harder to write. She makes some bad choices, and it was difficult to keep her sympathetic. I hope she just comes across as very human and somewhat misguided.
This novel is very much about the ways that parents can fail their children. But it’s also about the ability of children to transcend their upbringing and reach for more. Can you comment further on this? What lessons can be learned from how the Healy women—Theresa, Franny, and Cara—relate to each other?
I think it’s essentially about people trying to do their best, but often unintentionally hurting their loved-ones along the way. I don’t think any of the main characters are ever intentionally cruel to each other, but their decisions and actions often harm others in unexpected ways. The story is also, to my mind, about forgiveness. Cara needs to forgive her mother at the end in order to move on with her own life.
Which authors and novels have had the greatest influence on your own writing?
I love those classic ‘big’ blockbuster reads—so Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, Jeffrey Archer’s Kane & Abel, Jackie Collins’ Chances, and Sidney Sheldon’s Master of the Game.
After a career in finance, you now have two novels under your belt. Will you continue writing? What are you up to next?
I’m already hard at work on my third novel. It’s probably my most ambitious novel to date, and it’s about two women from very different backgrounds—an American heiress and an English scullery maid—whose lives become entwined in a way they couldn’t imagine…