Skip to Main Content

For fans of Mary Beth Keane and Jennifer Egan, this powerful, moving multigenerational saga from National Book Award finalist Martha McPhee—ten years in the making—explores one family’s story against the sweep of 20th century American history.

Drawn from the author’s own family history, An Elegant Woman is a story of discovery and reinvention, following four generations of women in one American family. As Isadora, a novelist, and two of her sisters sift through the artifacts of their forebears’ lives, trying to decide what to salvage and what to toss, the narrative shifts to a winter day in 1910 at a train station in Ohio. Two girls wait in the winter cold with their mother—the mercurial Glenna Stewart—to depart for a new life in the West. As Glenna campaigns in Montana for women’s suffrage and teaches in one-room schoolhouses, Tommy takes care of her little sister, Katherine: trapping animals, begging, keeping house, cooking, while Katherine goes to school. When Katherine graduates, Tommy makes a decision that will change the course of both of their lives.

A profound meditation on memory, history, and legacy, An Elegant Woman follows one woman over the course of the 20th century, taking the reader from a drought-stricken farm in Montana to a yellow Victorian in Maine; from the halls of a psychiatric hospital in London to a wedding gown fitting at Bergdorf Goodman; from a house in small town Ohio to a family reunion at a sweltering New Jersey pig roast. Framed by Isadora’s efforts to retell her grandmother’s journey—and understand her own—the novel is an evocative exploration of the stories we tell ourselves, and what we leave out.

This reading group guide for An Elegant Woman includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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.

Introduction

Drawn from the author’s own family history, An Elegant Woman is a story of discovery and reinvention, following four generations of women in one American family. As Isadora, a novelist, and two of her sisters sift through the artifacts of their forebears’ lives, trying to decide what to salvage and what to toss, the narrative shifts to a winter day in 1910 at a train station in Ohio. Two girls wait in the cold with their mother—the mercurial Glenna Stewart—to depart for a new life in the West. As Glenna campaigns in Montana for women’s suffrage and teaches in one-room schoolhouses, Tommy takes care of her little sister, Katherine: trapping animals, begging, keeping house, cooking, while Katherine goes to school. When Katherine graduates, Tommy makes a decision that will change the course of both their lives.

A profound meditation on memory, history, and legacy, An Elegant Woman follows one woman over the course of the twentieth century, taking the reader from a drought-stricken farm in Montana to a yellow Victorian in Maine; from the halls of a psychiatric hospital in London to a wedding gown fitting at Bergdorf Goodman; from a house in small-town Ohio to a family reunion at a sweltering New Jersey pig roast. Framed by Isadora’s efforts to retell her grandmother’s journey—and understand her own—the novel is an evocative exploration of the stories we tell ourselves and what we leave out.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. At the beginning of the novel, as Isadora and her sisters sort through their grandmother’s belongings, Isadora reflects on her grandmother’s life. Have you ever had a similar experience? How did it make you feel?

2. On the long train ride west, do you sympathize with Tommy? With Katherine? With Glenna? What do you make of her disappearance?

3. All through Tommy’s childhood, Glenna campaigns for votes for women: “Man is man and woman is woman and our natures are different and our voices are different, but both must and will be heard” (page 106). Do Glenna’s political preoccupations help her daughters see their opportunities, or do they have to make opportunities in spite of her?

4. When their apartment lights on fire, why does Tommy refuse to leave? Why does she tell Katherine that she hates her?

5. Through Isadora’s interjections into the narrative, McPhee reveals that much of a family history can be fictional. What purposes does she suggest these fictions serve?

6. Before they part, adults now, Tommy and Katherine argue. Does their relationship ever recover from this argument? Is either sister honest here about what she wants?

7. McPhee’s novel focuses on the way her characters go about making their lives. Do you think chance or determination influences a life more? How much of each?

8. Over the course of the novel, attitudes about children change dramatically. What does that have to do with the times? With economics?

9. Why does Tommy repeat that, on her trip with the Simmons family, she was “treated like a guest” (page 164)? Why was that so important to her?

10. Why do Tommy and her sister choose their respective husbands? What does each see in the man she marries?

11. Growing up, how does Slim feel about Aunt Thelma, Uncle Charles, Winter, and Jet? Jealous, admiring, interested?

12. Describe the scene between Slim, Tommy, and Mr. Moon. What is the connection between Slim and Tommy in this scene?

13. Why does Pat take the Cantonese wedding bowl from Tommy at the end of her New Jersey visit?

14. Tommy and her sister take very different paths. Why? What character traits make the difference?

15. What are the ramifications of what Lavern does to Winter—for Winter, for Nan, and for Tommy?

16. Describe Winter’s first meeting with Arthur. How is the complexity of their later relationship seeded in their car ride to the hospital? Even then is Winter attracted to him? How does she view him?

17. Why is Isadora, out of all her sisters, the most attached to her grandmother? What’s their special bond?

18. How does Tommy feel about Zasu? What’s her reaction in the hospital, after Zasu is born? When she describes Zasu as “illegitimate” (page 351), what does that reveal about Tommy’s prejudices and limitations?

19. Are Tommy’s stories about her ancestors, the ones she passes on to Isadora, fabrications? Are they exaggerations? The truth? Or somewhere in between? What is the value and purpose of these stories?

20. How do women and their opportunities change across the century McPhee describes?

21. What does Isadora learn on that final trip with Sam, Zane, Gracie, Mathilde, and Slim?

22. Women change their identities in this book, travel to different places, take on new names, first and last. Does it feel more or less possible to shift identities now?

23. The relationships between sisters, between women, drive the narrative, but the women still operate within a patriarchal society. How do you think the influence of patriarchy influences each of them and their relationships?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Discuss the stories passed down in your family with your book group.

2. Embark on research into your own family history and discuss the results. Did you learn anything new?

3. To learn more about Martha McPhee and An Elegant Woman, visit https://marthamcphee.com.
Photograph by Ann Billingsley

Martha McPhee is the author of the novels An Elegant Woman, Bright Angel Time, Gorgeous Lies, L’America, and Dear Money. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Gorgeous Lies was a finalist for the National Book Award. She teaches fiction at Hofstra University and lives in New York City.

Gabra Zackman knows romance. Her clever and “thrilling romantic caper” (Library Journal) Bod Squad series was inspired by the more than one hundred romance and women’s fiction titles she has narrated for audio. She divides her time between her native New York City and Denver, Colorado.

More books from this reader: Gabra Zackman

You may also like: Historical Fiction Staff Picks