This reading group guide for Cottage by the Sea includes discussion questions and a Q&A with author Robin Jones Gunn. 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.
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1. A theme throughout the book was the idea of hidden things. What were some things you noticed that were hidden in the beginning of the story and then later revealed? How did those revelations change Erin and the other characters in the story?
2. Looking at each of the key women in this story, what three or four words would you use to describe her life: Erin? Sharlene? Delores? Sierra? Which woman can you most relate to at this point in your journey?
3. How did Erin’s heart toward her father change throughout the book? What do you think led to that growth? Do you think her father’s heart changed? How?
4. Both Erin and Tony received words of healing from their dad. What did he say that impacted them so much? What is the one thing you wish you could hear from your father? Your mother? What is the one thing you would like to say to them? What is the one thing you would like to say to your children? If it is still possible, would you be willing to tell them?
5. Throughout the book Erin’s stress was evidenced by the way she was torn in two directions: caring for her father and investing in her new business venture with Sharlene. Have you ever had a season of life where you felt torn in two directions? What was pulling you, and what was the end result? What and who helped you to make it through that time in life?
6. Looking at the key men in the story, can you describe how each of them changed/grew as the story unfolded: Mike? Jack? Tony? Jordan?
7. How did the “cottage by the sea” tie into the story’s development? How did Jack and Delores describe the cottage before they renovated? In what ways did the cottage’s transformation parallel Erin’s?
8. What role did Erin’s mother play in this story? What older woman has shaped your life? How?
9. “There are no shortcuts in committed love. This is your path. No matter how long or lonely it may be right now, to experience the fullness of love, you must go the distance. Only the strongest and bravest stay on the path. And you, my darling girl, have been given everything you need to be among the strongest and bravest.”
Erin’s mother gave her this advice at a crucial time in life. What thoughts come to mind as you read it? What do you think she means when she says that Erin has been given everything she needs?
10. “It’s not always about what I think it’s about. The older I get, the more convinced I am that God has a hidden objective tucked into every disagreeable situation I encounter. If only I would collect those sparkling gems of truth while I’m in the midst of each difficult relationship or experience, I’d leave this earth a wise and spiritually wealthy woman.”
What were the hidden objectives the Lord had in store for Erin through this story? Looking at this season of your life, what do you think is the hidden objective that God has tucked away for you to glean?
A Conversation with Robin Jones Gunn
1. On several occasions in the story Erin had a perfect scripture or blessing to apply to what is going on in her life, such as when she reads Psalm 90:17 to mark the first day of business for The Happiest Day. How does your own personal faith influence your everyday life? Do you have a favorite passage of scripture?
I am continually seeing God’s hand at work in everyday situations and I’m always amazed at how his care for us is so deliberate. My faith grows every time I trust God in a new situation and see how he works out all the details. My grandmother kept several journals where she wrote favorite verses and sayings. I inherited those wee books and have learned a lot from what she jotted down. I keep a journal as well and frequently add a new passage of scripture or a memorable moment.
Psalm 139 is my favorite chapter in the Bible and has been since I was in high school. Over the past few years Acts 20:24 has meant a lot to me. “But my life is worth nothing unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the LORD Jesus—the work of telling others the Good News about God’s wonderful kindness and love.”
This is exactly what I long to do with every book I write—to tell others about God’s wonderful kindness and love because there is so much to tell!2. Cottage by the Sea is a novel built on the intricacies of family relationships and friendships. How have your experiences influenced the way that you create these fictional relationships?
This story draws from what I went through emotionally when my father had a stroke more than fifteen years ago and how he was partially paralyzed and unable to speak. He found ways to express that he loved us and those memories are still vivid and powerful. The stroke brought his emotional responses to the surface and that caused him to be more expressive than he’d ever been. A lot of healing took place during those last five and a half years of his life. My mom cared for him at home in California the entire time and she did an excellent job. This story needed more conflict than what my real-life experience had been. So when I overheard a woman on a long flight talking about her difficult stepmother situation I knew I had the imaginary tangle I was looking for and created the character of Delores.3. On your website, you say that teenagers at your church first challenged you to try writing fiction. How has your role as a mentor to other young women influenced the way you live your life? How has it influenced your career?
The girls in our youth group were reading books that were way too evocative for their thirteen-year-old hearts. I tried to find other books that would be more nurturing and they suggested I write a story for them. They’d even tell me what to write. That first Christy Miller novel took two years to write and received ten rejections. Each week the girls in the youth group critiqued my chapters and often told me they wanted better role models than the characters in the stories they were reading. They wanted to be shown how to make good choices. They wanted the main character to be a girl they would want to be friends with in real life. It all worked because I learned how to write through the mentoring of those teen girls and now, twenty-five years later, those books are still in print and are mentoring young readers around the world.
I’ve had a very God-blessed life. So many young women have not. I love having the opportunity to speak truth to young hearts and affirm who they are and how God has dreams for their lives that are beyond any sort of dream they could imagine.
Along with our own daughter, who is now twenty-five and recently married, there has been a stream of young women who have lived with us or spent a lot of time in our home throughout our thirty-five years of marriage. The influence of these women has profoundly impacted what I write about, how the characters develop in the story, and even the outcome of the books. I know from all the reader mail I receive that the stories I write influence women of all ages. What the readers don’t know is how much the women in my small circles have inspired and motivated me as I’ve been busy crafting a new tale. I do believe that the mentoring influence women have with other women is life-giving and essential. This overall theme of friendships between women is what I wrote about in the eight Sisterchicks novels.4. You have often said that you love traveling. How have your worldwide travels inspired your writing? Where would you like to go next?
God made such an amazing world with such fascinating people. I’d love to see it all!
In Under a Maui Moon
I drew from many of the experiences we’ve had on Maui and the deep love I have for Hawaii. Canary Island Song
is set in the Canary Islands, an exotic locale I’ve visited three times and would love to visit again. The flamenco lessons, camel rides, and fabulous foods I was introduced to there all became part of the novel.
While I was writing the Sisterchicks novels the publisher asked for them to be set in places like Paris, Venice, and Australia. I was given a travel budget so I could visit each locale before writing about it. Talk about a writer’s dream come true!
I’m on the board of directors for Media Associates International, an international organization that provides training for writers and publishers in difficult places around the world. As a result of that position I’ve taught workshops in Brazil, Kenya, England, and Bulgaria. Every place I’ve visited has ended up in a book somehow. Interacting with so many people in various cultures has given me valuable insights into human nature and given me deeper understanding of political and social complexities. 5. Erin makes a lot of sacrifices to be with her father during his last months. How have you made sacrifices for your loved ones? Looking back, would you make the same decisions knowing what you know today?
Nothing heroic. Over the years I have made sacrifices for my loved ones and my loved ones have made sacrifices for me. But nothing to the extent of what Erin gave up in the story. I would make all the same decisions again knowing what I know today. However, I would hope that I would be less fearful of what the outcome was going to be and less fretful about trying to recoup time, energy, or resources that were given up or given away. God always seems to faithfully return a double portion of all that we give if we do it with pure motives and out of genuine love for the other person.6. Although the primary audience for Cottage by the Sea is adult readers, it could be an appropriate story for younger readers as well. As you are writing, do you picture your audience?
I agree that readers of all ages will be able to relate to this story. Readers who have followed me for a while will undoubtedly be eager to have a peek at Jordan and Sierra’s wedding since this is the same Sierra as in all the Sierra Jensen books. The story of how Jordan and Sierra met is in Love Finds You in Sunset Beach, Hawaii.
It has gotten easier to picture my audience with all the photos viewable when readers contact me on my Robin Jones Gunn Facebook page or via Twitter at Robin Gunn. When I first started writing I had a bulletin board in my office and whenever I received a photo from a reader I added it to the board. I soon had a gorgeous collage of expectant faces looking down on me as
I typed my little heart out. Images and comments from readers are ever in the forefront of my thoughts as I write.7. Between your work with your church, keeping up with your family, your tour schedule, and your writing, how do you find time for yourself?
My agent and I have worked together for twenty-five years. She was here visiting me last year and the two of us took some time away from our meetings to go to the beach, nestle our feet in the sand, and just sit together in great contentment and listen to the ocean as the sun set. “How often do you do this?” she asked. My answer was, “Counting this time? Twice.” She gave me one of her best agent looks and said, “That’s going to change.” And it has.
She and I also made ourselves promise that just like the women in Canary Island Song
we would show ourselves a kindness once a month. I’ve done things I’d never allowed my busy little self to do before, such as getting a facial and going to the movies in the middle of a perfectly good workday. My friend Jill calls this “mental health improvement” moments.
It makes me think of how Jesus told his disciples to “come apart and rest a while.” My husband is a counselor and he reminds me every now and then that if we don’t “come apart” we may soon find our lives are about to “come apart.” The interesting thing to me is that I love what I do. All of it. Writing, speaking, traveling, and entertaining in our home. That makes it even more essential to learn how to set an internal timer that goes off and says, “Stop what you’re doing and go put your feet in the sand and just listen.”8. On your website (robingunn.com), you write that you never “set out to be a writer,” but at this point in your life, with more than seventy-five books published, is there anything else that you could see yourself doing with your life if you weren’t a writer?
Well, maybe. I love to speak to women’s groups and to groups of teen girls. I’ve been doing more of that lately so maybe that’s part of what’s next. I send out a Robin’s Nest Newsletter and give updates of new book releases and speaking event locations. The sign-up link is on my website and my Facebook page.9. What is your favorite part about living in Hawaii?
I love the mornings. I love watching the sunrise and listening to the doves when they give their canticle of praise through the open bedroom windows at first light. My favorite time to go swimming is before 7:00 a.m. I walk down to the water, about a mile away, and stride directly into the ocean without pausing. It makes me feel so alive. I bob and splash around for about half an hour, watching the fishermen and paddle boarders and joggers on the beach. Then I grab my towel and walk home, glistening as the salt drops dry on my arms.
I also love the people we hang out with. We have lots of kindred spirits in our church community.10. What are you working on now?
I just finished the fourth book in the Katie Weldon series. It’s titled Finally and Forever
and is set in Kenya. The whole time I was writing that story I felt as if I were vividly reliving all the experiences I had in Nairobi three years ago. My desk was covered with photos and excerpts from my journal. When I turned the book in I literally felt as if I had been to Africa and back.
What’s next? Good stuff! I’ll be revealing details when I can in the upcoming Robin’s Nest Newsletters, so please sign up, dear readers! Flit on over to www.robingunn.com or go to my Facebook page, Robin Jones Gunn, public figure.
And one more thought. For any of you who are in a situation like Erin in this story and are giving and giving at a great sacrifice to yourself, your family, or perhaps your career, keep doing what you’re doing with an uncluttered heart. Give generously and with much love. God will give back to you even more. And make sure you take time to “come apart” and show yourself a kindness so that you can rest a while and be renewed.Aloha, Robin